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Colombia Travel Guide

Is This the Next Must-Visit Family Destination?

It's the 'Frozen' effect.

Norway, New Zealand, Croatia. What do these countries have in common? Movies and television have put them on the map for tourists. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies turned New Zealand into Middle Earth for Tolkien fans. Tourism increased by 50% in the decade after 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring, the first in the movie series.

Tourism to Norway also heated up after Disney set the fictional kingdom of Arendelle in 2013’s animated hit Frozen along the Norwegian coastline and featured Norwegian architecture, folk art, and fjords. Kids wanted to experience Norway, leading to a frenzy of families eager to explore the Frozen landscape. U.S. visitors to Norway increased by 31% the first year after the movie’s release. Over in Croatia, an army of tourists storm Dubrovnik’s Fort Lovrijenac on a daily basis, home to the fictional King’s Landing on HBO’s long-running Game of Thrones series.

What impact can a movie or TV show have on tourism? Colombia may be the next country to find out. Disney’s newest animated blockbuster, Encanto, which means “to charm” or “enchant,” has charmed both film critics and audiences, helping it take the top box office spot after its release. The story of a little girl who lives with her family in a fictional mountain village in Colombia, the film spotlights the nation’s landscape, culture, and cuisine. From the Spanish colonial architecture modeled after Cartagena, to the cobblestoned streets and haciendas resembling colonial villages like Barichara, Colombia takes center stage in Encanto.

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With songs and music by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Colombian music also plays an important role in the film. The main character plays the accordion, allowing Miranda to feature the rhythms of bambuco, an accordion-centric Colombian style of music. Miranda also featured instruments unique to Colombia, including the tiple, a 12-stringed guitar, and worked with popular Colombian musicians. The soundtrack includes reggaeton, salsa, mapalé, an Afro-Colombian rhythm and style of dance, as well as cumbia, the traditional folk dance of Colombia.

Despite the nation’s natural beauty, cultural riches, and biodiversity, Colombian tourism professionals have long struggled with a perception problem. “Drug traffickers and guerrillas are the stereotypes. We are a misunderstood country with so much more to offer,” says Hernan Acevedo, who heads up Colombia tours for tour operator Intrepid Travel. “More people need to experience the beauty and vibrancy of Colombia. From the serene highlands of our famed coffee regions to Bogota’s colonial heart. We think we are South America’s best-kept secret.”

The government tourism agency is hoping that secret will be revealed through the film, leaving movie-goers and home streamers wanting to experience the real thing. “Through Encanto, the world will have a better grasp of Colombia’s magical realism, biodiversity, and cultural wealth, as well as the warmth that characterizes our people,” Pro Colombia president Flavia Santoro said in a videotaped announcement. “It is a film that reflects Colombia’s untold story.”

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Destinations often try to quickly capitalize on the excitement around a movie or TV show. In 2018, the Singapore Tourism Board saw the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians as a rebranding opportunity to market the country as a luxury travel destination. They partnered with Warner Bros. to make sure the tourism board was featured in promotional campaigns for the film.

Will fans instantly flock to a country or city to get those Instagram-worthy shots where a movie was shot? That’s certainly the case for Salzburg, Austria, where the hills are still alive with fans of 1965’s The Sound of Music. “All cultures tell stories, and they are our most powerful way of communicating and giving meaning to our lives. Movies have the potential to add a layer of meaning to a place, which can often be quite emotional,” says Sue Breeton, tourism researcher and author of the books Film-Induced Tourism and Travel, Tourism and the Moving Image. “TV series often have more impact in this way as the viewer engages more with the stories, places, and characters— Game of Thrones is a great example of this.”

Unfortunately for Colombia, negative stereotypes of corrupt politicians and violence were perpetrated in the popular Netflix series, Narcos. “We absorb and retain the negative stories much more than the positives ones, as in our fascination with bad news,” says Breeton. “Violent crime-related stories have a strong influence on us emotionally. Interestingly, they can also encourage tourists who are looking for some sort of vicarious danger.” That may explain why one Medellin Airbnb rental markets itself as Pablo Escobar’s penthouse. It’s a chance for any one of us to live like the King of Cocaine, if only for an evening or two.

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Can Colombia finally shed itself of its violent reputation? Will Encanto give families an appetite for Colombia’s citrusy lulo fruit, hearty ajiaco chicken and potato soup, or its cornmeal arepas? Will the film’s fans want to see the towering palm trees surrounded by lush green mountains found in the Cocora Valley of the country’s coffee region, just like in the animated film’s landscape? Intrepid Travel’s Hernan Acevedo hopes so. He’s ready to show visitors a new side of his homeland.

“We are not the stereotype of drug traffickers and guerillas. Once people come, their perception changes completely, in a good way,” says Acevedo. “Colombia has exotic plants, animals, beautiful countryside, and exciting cities—plus, the weather is always fantastic.”