Brad Hinkelman Has A Vision for Medellin

Brad Hinkelman
Brad Hinkelman
Brad hinkelman

My name is Brad Hinkelman, and for over 15 years, I have envisioned tourism in Colombia as a significant economic and social opportunity. In 2008, my initial visit to Colombia was among only 500,000 foreigners that year. By 2024, it is expected that Colombia will see over 5,000,000 foreign visitors, marking an incredible 1000% increase in tourism over just 15 years.

Today, Colombia boasts approximately 12,000 hotels and 120,000 Airbnb hosts, as per Cotelco and Asohost. In December 2023 alone, Airbnb reported over $87M USD in payouts to property owners nationwide. In 2024, Airbnb could potentially pay nearly $1 billion to its Colombian hosts (AirDNA). President Gustavo Petro has called tourism “one of the largest drivers of economic well-being,” while ex-President Ivan Duque referred to tourism as “Colombia’s new petroleum.” Indeed, the country has made significant strides since 2008.

My journey began with a single Airbnb listing in 2010 when Airbnb first entered the Medellin market. I was a true pioneer. One listing grew to two, then three, and today I manage over 500 listings, making my company, Casacol, the largest Airbnb operator in Medellin. Coupled with our 350-room hotel operations, we are the largest tourism operator in Medellin. Over 250 foreign investors have followed my lead and the promotional efforts of Procolombia, ACI Medellin, and the Ministry of Commerce to help build and acquire over $100M USD in Medellin real estate. We sell almost 20,000 rooms per month solely in Medellin and support nearly 300 full-time jobs directly, with hundreds more indirectly. The growth of my company has mirrored the rapid expansion of tourism in Medellin and Colombia.

Minister German Umaña and Procolombia President Carmen Caballero recently highlighted foreign investment in Colombian tourism infrastructure at the prestigious Raffles Hotel in London, which charges $1,000 per night. The focus was on sustainable tourism, a critical question for all stakeholders: is tourism quantity and quality in Colombia sustainable? Lately, I have had my doubts.

We are ready to work collaboratively with policymakers to ensure a brighter, more sustainable future for all 50 million Colombians, with responsible and sustainable tourism at our core.

In the past five years, especially post-COVID, I have witnessed a significant decline in the quality of tourism in Medellin. Colleagues in Cartagena report similar issues. Social media is flooded with content promoting what can be charitably called international dating and more accurately described as sex tourism. Additionally, foreigners seeking cheap cocaine or experimenting with local synthetic substances do so freely and without consequence. Colombia has increasingly become a hub for low-quality tourism and its accompanying vices.

On March 28, 2024, we experienced a serious incident when an Airbnb guest was reported to the police with two underage victims of presumed sexual abuse. Despite our strict policies and best efforts, our property was linked to the accused, tarnishing our reputation. To add insult to injury, politicians suggested our property could face asset forfeiture, a risk that now concerns every investor in Colombian hospitality.

Colombia is indeed at a critical juncture regarding its international reputation. Medellin has recently adopted the brand “aquí todo florece,” and Colombia is known as “the country of beauty.” Responsible tourism in Colombia can begin with policymakers collaborating with governments worldwide. The U.S. has over 850,000 registered sex offenders in public databases. The Department of Homeland Security’s Angel Watch Center alerts foreign law enforcement about Americans convicted of sex crimes who may be traveling. Colombia does not currently participate in this program. Countries like Canada cooperate with the U.S. through reciprocal programs like NCIC/CPIC to ensure that any criminal record results in automatic denied entry. Australia and the UK have similar programs. Colombia should consider such cooperation to prevent criminal tourists from entering the country.

However, we must also address the root social issues enabling human trafficking. Where are the parents and guardians? What conditions did these children grow up in? What kind of education did they receive, if any? The OECD reports that it takes 11 generations for a Colombian child born today to escape poverty. Colombian policymakers have some deep soul-searching to do.

Tourism can be part of the solution. It is a labor-intensive industry benefiting every socioeconomic stratum. It employs construction workers, engineers, architects, taxi and Uber drivers, cooks, waiters, baristas, maids, receptionists, and security guards, among others. Entrepreneurs, both local and foreign, invest capital to develop infrastructure and attract tourists to Colombia. If tourism (currently 2% of GDP) in Colombia reaches the level of Spain (12%), millions of Colombians could rise from poverty into stable, decent jobs in the formal economy.

~ Brad Hinkelman

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