Stability, economic growth and a new trade agreement are creating stronger Florida-Colombia trade links.
It's too early to declare the trade deal a success, says Camilo Reyes, executive director of Bogotá-based Colombian-American Chamber of Commerce. In the three months since the deal was signed, Colombian imports into the United States were up 11%, while American exports into Colombia fell by 1%.
But other indicators bode well. In the first five months of 2012, Florida's trade with Colombia rose 18% over the same period last year.
One area ripe for foreign investment is Colombia's transportation infrastructure. With a revenue surplus in hand, the government may offer incentives to update or build highways, bridges, ports and airports. The old Bogotá airport is being rebuilt — partly redesigned by Miami-based Zyscovich Architects [See Faces of Florida-Colombia Trade: Design].
There's a push to build roads and repair old ones as more Colombians feel safe traveling intercity by car. Reyes says U.S. firms have fallen behind other countries in investing in Colombia's infrastructure. He suspects it might be because road projects in Colombia require investors to build and help manage the roads.
Reyes says other investment opportunities include energy, food products and medical tourism. Colombia's relatively low cost of health care makes it an attractive destination for Americans searching for a lower-cost alternative for treatment.
Demand for hotels has also skyrocketed as tourism has grown. Last year, 1.8 million tourists visited, more than doubling the 732,000 tourists who came in 2000, according to Colombia's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism. Hilton just opened its first hotel in Bogotá, and other U.S. hotel chains are interested in expanding in Colombia, including Marriott and Intercontinental Hotels Group, which owns Holiday Inn. Colombia's tourism marketing arm, Proexport, even developed a slogan that plays off the country's old reputation: "Colombia. The only risk is wanting to stay."
Among the business travelers this year have been two delegations — one from Miami and the other from Orlando, both including dozens of business- people from their respective regions. This month, Gov. Rick Scott brings a delegation of more than 80 Florida executives to Colombia.
In Orlando, meanwhile, a new Colombian consulate office opened this year, established to help manage the anticipated uptick in tourism and business travel.
Florida is poised to gain more from the free trade agreement than other states, says Florida International University professor Eduardo Gamarra, an expert on Latin America. But he warns against assuming Colombia will always look to Florida as its primary trading partner. The trade agreement, he says, allows Colombian companies to more easily target non-Florida markets.
As both security and business climate in Colombia improve, more entrepreneurial-minded Colombians are feeling comfortable moving back to their homeland.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, about a third of all Colombians living in the U.S. are in Florida, including some successful businesspeople. Zumba Fitness, the popular exercise class, was started by Colombians living in south Florida who left Colombia in the 1990s.
Gamarra, who is Bolivian, says he and his wife, who is from Colombia, debate every year whether to move back. "I could go back, even though it's not my country," Gamarra says. "They have things you simply cannot get in the United States," he says, such as inexpensive, good medical care. "I could retire there on Social Security very easily."
Enrique Gómez-Pinzón, a partner in Holland & Knight's Bogotá office, moved back this year after a 14-year stint in Washington, D.C. "Nowadays, we can confidently state that the government is in charge," he says. Most remarkable to him is that he can stroll to his office every day without an armored car. "It's just like any other big city," he says.