Barranquilla, Colombia for FT Special Reports - Colombia: Investing in the Atlantic Coast
© Charlie Cordero, for the FT

Cartagena, the top tourist destination on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is a great place for a holiday — unless you happen to fall ill. While the city boasts some of the country’s most luxurious hotels, years of corruption and government neglect have left it without a good hospital. Those who can afford it go up the coast to Barranquilla for treatment.

That will soon change. What promises to be one of Colombia’s best hospitals is being built 12km north of Cartagena. Designed by the US-based Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, it will meet the strictest US standards and will have the best oncology department in the region.

The hospital will be part of Serena del Mar, a 1,000-hectare urban development. When it is finished in 2050 it will be a whole new small city with office buildings, a branch of one of Colombia’s top universities, Los Andes — which is already operating — and 20,000 homes, ranging from modest social housing to upscale apartments. Some 2,000 have already been sold. “It’s the fastest-selling real estate project in Colombia,” says Daniel Haime, who owns the land and is spearheading the scheme.

Cartagena, Colombia - Commissioned for FT Special Report Colombia: Investing in the Atlantic Coast
Attention class: the new university at Serena del Mar © Charlie Cordero, for the FT

Such projects are common in countries like China or Saudi Arabia with bountiful state budgets but rare in middle-income countries like Colombia. Serena del Mar, which is wholly funded by the private sector, is a sign of how the Caribbean coast is changing. The region was long neglected by central government, which focused on developing the interior, where the largest cities are. Only since the 1990s, when Colombia liberalised its economy, has it turned its attention northward.

The transformation is most evident in infrastructure. The whole region seems to be under construction. New roads are being built and old ones improved. Ports are being upgraded. As the government does not collect much in taxes (only 14 per cent of gross domestic product), it is tapping into the private sector to help. Public-private partnerships have been used to build big infrastructure projects, including a new 5.4km viaduct, financed by Goldman Sachs, that spans a swamp between Cartagena and Serena del Mar; it is part of a road upgrade programme that is expected to halve the journey time between Cartagena and Barranquilla, to about 90 minutes.

The government’s push to build new roads is “part of an effort to make the region more competitive”, says Luis Eduardo Gutiérrez of the National Infrastructure Agency (ANI). Other projects are a response to booming tourism. Cartagena’s airport is overstretched, receiving more than 5m passengers a year. A new airport, with twice the capacity, will replace it by 2025. The ANI is expected to approve the expansion of the runway at Santa Marta’s airport, enabling it to receive long-haul flights.

Meanwhile Barranquilla will get a new airport in time to welcome visitors to the Inter-American Development Bank’s annual meeting next March. The city will soon boast one of the country’s few 10-lane roads, as well as the Pumarejo bridge, which will span the Magdalena river to improve links with Santa Marta and Colombia’s inland cities.

Barranquilla has also unveiled plans to build its first metro and would like to develop a new deepwater port. Over the past decade, the city has opened or refurbished scores of parks and outdoor recreational areas, as well as 20km of cycle lanes. Its successful hosting of the 2018 Central American and Caribbean Games means it has the best sports facilities in the country. In the warm Caribbean evenings, Barranquilleros flock to avail themselves of open-air volleyball courts and swimming pools.

Despite the progress, the coast has a lot of catching up to do. Rodolfo Segovia, a former senator, businessman and historian, identifies two main factors that have held it back. The first is energy company Electricaribe, which has performed so poorly that the coast suffers regular power cuts. That has prompted the state to step in and take over the company, and a sale is expected soon; given the amount of money that will be needed to upgrade the grid, the successful bidder will probably either be foreign or have international partners.

Cartagena, Colombia - Commissioned for FT Special Report Colombia: Investing in the Atlantic Coast
© Charlie Cordero, for the FT

The second factor is what Mr Segovia calls “the region’s isolation”. The lack of good roads linking the coast to the interior keeps freight fares high. The previous government’s attempts to remedy this, by building a new highway and dredging the Magdalena, stalled in 2016 because of a corruption scandal. President Iván Duque has vowed to recommission the projects before his term ends in 2022.

In the meantime, the government is rebuilding parts of the only railway connecting the coast to the interior, which runs from Santa Marta to within 160km of Bogotá. A weekly train carries 20 times the cargo that a truck can transport during the 18 hours it takes to drive from Cartagena to the capital.

President Duque’s vision for the region goes further. His government plans to invest $50bn in infrastructure projects across the coast over the next four years. He also hopes to widen the road that connects Barranquilla to Santa Marta and to rebuild parts of the 118km canal connecting Cartagena to the Magdalena river.

Those plans may prove too ambitious for Mr Duque’s four-year term but nevertheless suggest a shift in the government’s interests. A poor relation for so long, the Caribbean coast is becoming a priority.

This article has been amended since first publication because the picture of the university at Serena del Mar was incorrectly captioned

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About this Special Report

After years of neglect, the region is well and truly open for business. Plus: how a wave of infrastructure investment is transforming the coast; the mayor who turned round a troubled city; bright prospects for onshore renewables and offshore gas; and is the region ready for an upsurge in tourism?

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