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European Aid Still Trumps Tourism in Colombia

The Colombian government has launched a charm offensive aimed at luring international tourists. But it's no easy task as violence, drugs and poverty remain even as the country has entered a relatively peaceful time.

A horse-drawn carriage rides through the center of Cartagena, Colombia. A showcase for colonial architecture

This is the image Colombia is promoting, but for millions reality is very different

Cartagena, its graceful city center hugging the Caribbean coast, is a colonial-era jewel encircled by modern day poverty and persistent violence. Home to more than 1 million people, the city illustrates the complex situation faced by Colombia as it tries to return to normalcy after decades of armed conflict.

The United Nations World Tourism Organization met in Cartagena this week and Colombia officials were eager to change perceptions of the country. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe, whose law-and-order policies have brought some stability to the country, bore the message that his country was ready for European and American tourists to arrive and open their wallets.

"You are visiting a country that has suffered greatly, but has a tremendous amount of hope," he said.

Real world problems

The church of San Pedro Claver, built in the first half of the 17th century

Cartagena's historic city center is a UNESCO world heritage site

But even as delegates met, the reality of life outside Cartagena's heavily-guarded convention center seeped in and painted a bleak picture of life with few public services and no police protection.

Between 2 million and 3 million Colombians have fled their homes to escape ongoing paramilitary hostilities and are living in extreme poverty in the suburbs of cities such as Cartagena. Newspapers also regularly carry reports of murders and other drug-related violence.

Uribe said he knows it's news like this which has kept the number of Europeans who visit Colombia each year small: about 125,700 arrived in the first nine months of 2007. Most came from former colonial power Spain.

"Terrorism puts a stop to all our possibilities," he said referring to fighting between left-wing guerillas, right-wing paramilitaries, the military and drug lords. "Without terrorism, we'll have tourism. Without terrorism, we'll be happy."

Some positives, many problems

A view of the skyline in the Boca Grande neighborhood of Cartagena, Colombia

The growing economy has led to a building boom in Cartagena

The Colombian government points to statistics which show that in recent years the murder rate has been cut in half and kidnappings are down 75 percent. The country is also experiencing an economic boom officials hope will help bring in tourist dollars and help meet an ambitious goal of attracting 4 million foreign tourists to the country by 2010.

The economy had 6.8 percent growth in 2006 and is headed for 7.48 percent this year. In Cartagena, luxury hotels are springing up and it's become a routine stop on the Caribbean cruise circuit.

But even as the tourist industry proclaims its slogan, "Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay," and luxury hotels spring up along the country's beaches and growth heads to 7.48 percent this year, the government acknowledges that parts of the country are not safe for visitors.

EU aid a lifeline to locals

A woman sells fruit from a stand on the beach in Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena looks very different from outside the convention center

While the Colombian government said that eventually tourism will improve people's lives, it will remain dependent on international development aid.

The European Union will provide 160 million euros ($216 million) in humanitarian aid to Colombia between 2007-2013. But unlike the United States, which focuses on giving money to fight Colombia's illicit drug trade, the EU will direct aid directly to victims and non-governmental organizations which help them.

European donors are a lifeline for many local aid organizations in the country, but money -- from both tourism and the government -- doesn't always appear as promised, said Maria Amparo Gomez, a Dominican nun who runs a school in Cartagena.

"There are two Cartagenas that are very well separated from each other," she said.

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