The breadth of the Atlantic Ocean and 18 years of history divides Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement from the Peace Accord in Colombia. Yet our two nations are united by the swords-to-ploughshares experience of restoring peace, justice and security after long years of trouble.
As President Juan Manuel Santos wrote in a message to the people of Northern Ireland ahead of his visit to Belfast this week: “We have learnt from your past, we admire your present and look forward to continue working with you in the future.”
As newcomers, we have much to learn from Northern Ireland’s successful experience. It is a constant reminder to Colombia of what’s possible, as prosperity and opportunity hastens and consolidates the peace process. So we look to Northern Ireland as a case study of how to successfully deliver a “double peace dividend” of security with prosperity.
During times of peace, foreign investment is the most important engine driving development and employment for all Colombians. Already, Colombia is one of the world’s top 30 countries attracting investment, thanks to one of the strongest and most stable economies in the region.
Over the past seven years, UK investment in Colombia has exceeded $7bn (US), making it the second largest investor. Projects include IT, outsourcing, hotels, and biofuels. But now it’s time to show a new breed of investors a “greater Colombia”.
Key geographic areas and key sectors of the economy — affected by conflict for half a century — are now opening up not only to peace, justice and social inclusion, but also to the investment and tourism that is driving Colombia’s emergence as a vibrant high-income developing country.
Investors, both domestic and foreign, are today eyeing Colombia’s newly-pacified areas for their potential for a range of industrial and service activities.
We know that to grow we must focus on internationalisation, diversification and above all, providing added value.
Newly opened-up districts offer significant opportunities. Many areas contain pristine forest and natural habitat, making them suited to niche travel.
So Colombia is looking to adventure tourism, ecotourism, and gourmet hospitality-related to high-end production of premium regional foods and local specialities.
In the hotels sector, for instance, there has been $8.9bn worth of foreign investment since 2010, with tourism growing at 12% yearly — almost four times the world average.
During the first half of 2016 international visitor numbers were up 10.3% and tourism is now Colombia’s second largest revenue earner.
There are very solid reasons for this investor optimism. Despite the global downturn, Colombia has over the last 15 years grown at an average annual rate of 4.3%, making it the market with the second best outlook for GDP growth in Latin America for 2016 and 2017, according to the IMF. It is an attractive marketplace, where the spending power of an increasingly well-educated population is growing rapidly.
The World Bank’s latest Doing Business 2017 report notes improvements including reduced corporate taxes and lower business licence taxes, as well as streamlined registration procedures for new businesses. Colombia now hosts business operations from over 700 international companies that generate revenues of $25.5bn.
To enable progress and increase competitiveness, the Santos government is overseeing the region’s most ambitious infrastructure development programme, with projects such as 4G toll roads, rail, ports and airport construction already delivering benefits to diverse economic sectors. These changes to Colombia’s transport logistics and connectivity will boost a range of industries, including international trade and tourism.
In the IT sector, foreign investors have put more than $10.3bn into dozens of software and outsourcing projects, while the start-up scene is buzzing.
From the perspective of trade relations, Colombia’s preferential location and 16 existing trade agreements make it an attractive strategic partner. With open access both to Latin America’s most vibrant regional economies and to markets in Asia, Colombia’s location on the Pacific seaboard offers major strategic benefits for companies based in Northern Ireland.
This, we believe, is Colombia’s moment. The country is stepping into one of the most important periods in our history. This is the time to come and join us.
Felipe Jaramillo is president of ProColombia, the government agency responsible for promoting exports, tourism, investment and raising awareness about Colombia. Find out more at: www.procolombia.co/en