Colombia. A country that was once synonymous with cocaine, drug cartels, political corruption and heinous crimes is now one of Latin America’s top travel destinations. How does this happen? How does a place shift a global perception of one of the most dangerous places on the planet to a tropical paradise in a relatively short period of time?

Since the 1960’s, the country has been saddled by its conflict with several guerilla and paramilitary groups involved in Colombia’s massive drug trade. From a perception standpoint, the country’s main exports were drugs and terror. There was little tourism business, and most people would be considered insane or suicidal if they considered visiting.

I was hoping to find a great marketing story behind this turnaround. A great brand strategy based on genius level insights. An amazing grassroots campaign that changed the plight of the country. But what I learned was a lesson far more valuable. One that we as marketers, often overlook: if you want to truly reposition a brand, you need to make fundamental changes. Not a redesign, not cosmetics, real changes that are felt. Changes that take time, energy and execution.

For Colombia, it had everything to do with a change in leadership. President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) implemented the “Democratic Security Policy”. At the risk of boring you with the details, the policy sought to deny sanctuary to terrorists, protect citizens through increased state presence and destroy the illegal drug trade. This  included implementing “Tourist Caravans” involving military that provided reinforced protection on specific days on roads to major holiday attractions

Within two years of this policy, homicides, kidnappings, and terrorist attacks fell by as much as 50%, the lowest rates in two decades. This happened to be the turning point for the brand. Until these changes were made it simply would have been foolish to invest in branding and destination marketing. With the Democratic Security Policy, the government also has been working toward generating a significant recovery in international tourism through Proexport (charged with marketing and promotion) and the Vice Ministry of Commerce for Tourism http://www.procolombia.co/en

Tourism growth in Colombia has been explosive. Since 2002, tourism has grown by 300% going from 540,000 tourists to over 2.5 million in 2015. Colombia is looking to build its tourism industry even more with a goal to bring in $6 billion in revenue from tourism in 2018.

And the simple lesson that we often miss as marketers is to get the product right first, only once that’s achieved can you be successful at marketing it. Well done Colombia.