CARTAGENA DE INDIAS, Colombia -- It was our first evening in Cartagena, and the assault was almost immediate as we walked onto the beach to watch the sun sink into the Caribbean.
"Hi, my name is William. I'll get you whatever you need: a chair, umbrella, a snack, a welcoming cocktail," said the first vendor to reach us. Within seconds, a half-dozen over-eager denizens of Cartagena's lido were on us like flies, offering food and drink, massages, hair-braiding, necklaces.
Politely declining the offers had no effect. We nearly had to break into a gallop to get away.
The next morning was worse. My wife, her brother and his wife were driven off the beach in 10 minutes by masseuses who wouldn't take no for an answer. They even squirted lotion on the women's backs before the bathers retreated to the hotel pool.
Image to world
Cartagena is an enchanting 465-year-old jewel, maritime stronghold of Spain's colonial empire. Its 7 miles of walled old city, built to fend off marauding pirates, gleam romantic at night. The city is the face Colombians proudly show foreigners at international gatherings.
Yet it is suffering its worst crisis in memory. A decline in visitors of more than 55 percent since 1994 forced hotels to lay off hundreds of workers. Occupancy rates at some hotels dropped to less than 10 percent. Thousands of residents who depend on tourism now struggle against poverty.
The proliferation of street vendors, annoying to the point of desperation, is the crisis' most visible symptom.
"They accost the tourist. They make his life impossible and either the tourist shuts himself in his hotel or grabs a plane out the next day and never wants to return," concedes Mayor Nicolas Curi.
In Bocagrande, the beach strip west of the old town where most hotels are located, vendors travel in packs, jamming T-shirts in tourists' faces, trailing them into restaurants.
At the 250-room Hotel Almirante, run by the Inter-Continental chain until it pulled out in March, a reception clerk reports just 30 guests on a Friday and offers a bargain rate of $80 per night double occupancy, meals included.
Cartagena's woes are a product of economic recession, a feverish early 1990s hotel building spree, environmental contamination and a worsening of this country's international image. Colombia is known abroad for its drug kingpins, an intensifying civil conflict and the world's highest kidnapping rate.
"People look at Colombia as a country they can't visit. The United States and Canada have both issued travel advisories against Colombia," says Tufik Yidios, director of the newly created visitor and convention bureau.
Canadians have stopped flocking here on $300 round-trip charters, and there are just two direct international flights from Europe and the United States. The resort is barely on the radar of U.S. travel agencies.
"The hotels in Cartagena might be a little bit too expensive for what people are looking for now," says Jennifer Ferman of the New York City-based tour operator Latour, which specializes in the region. "It's gotten to where a lot of people are looking for a cheapie Caribbean-type vacation."
Beauty in trouble
With seven five-star hotels and some of Colombia's most expensive restaurants, Cartagena has always catered to the upper-echelon international traveler.
The city is a living museum of 16th- and 17th-century architecture, where flowers spill out of elegant balconies, horses with carriages clip-clop through narrow streets and visitors spend the evening relaxing on cobbled plazas at outdoor cafes. For snorkeling, the coral reefs of the Rosario islands are little more than an hour away by boat.
Absent from the U.S. State Department's most recent travel advisory on Colombia is any mention of the city's distance from the country's internal conflict -- about two hours by car -- or of its friendly and vigilant police force.
"Violence by narcotic traffickers, guerrillas, paramilitary groups and other criminal elements continues to affect all parts of the country," the advisory states. Canada's government, on the other hand, warns against non-essential travel to Colombia but exempts Cartagena and other Caribbean resorts.
Cartagena's efforts to lobby the U.S. Embassy to amend its advisory so far have had no effect.
Hoping to counter negative publicity, the resort is launching a $2 million advertising blitz aimed at wooing Latin American and European tourists who now prefer Caribbean destinations such as Cuba, Aruba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.
Colombia President Andres Pastrana is also promising to help. In September, he pledged an "ambitious tourism policy" of which Cartagena is to be the cornerstone. Included will be exemptions for foreign tourists from Colombia's 16 percent national sales tax.
But Pastrana made no promises of federal funds, and the mayor says he needs money to develop a strategy for herding the vendors into kiosks and for guaranteeing Cartageneros essential services.
Pickpockets and con men may be the tourists' biggest security concerns in this city of 800,000 people. But refugees from the country's internal strife -- 25,000 have arrived since 1994, according to Mr. Curi -- have added a desperate, aggressive element to the vendor corps.
"Do you know that this is one of the poorest cities in Colombia?," asked Mr. Curi. Half the people live in poverty, and most of the indigent are squatters on the shores of a brackish 10-square-mile marsh into which 60 percent of Cartagena's sewage is dumped, untreated.
Cleaning the area
On the barrier peninsula separating the marsh, or cienaga, from the ocean is the village of Boquilla. Its 200 families used to supplement their meager fishing incomes by taking tourists through the mangroves in canoes hewn from tree trunks.
Today, the mangroves are too contaminated to visit.
"The cienaga stinks so much that sometimes people driving past have to roll up their windows," according to Ronald Moor, a Dutchman heading a project to clean out the marsh by introducing more sea water through a tidal channel.
Funded by the Dutch and Colombian governments, the project is one of two designed to clean up all the waters where Cartagena currently dumps its sewage.
The second project, underwritten by the World Bank, aims to clean up Cartagena Bay by 2005 and pump city sewage 2 miles out to sea via a pipe.
Cartagena also desperately needs money for sanitation, road work and other essentials.
If this colonial treasure is Colombia's window to the world, asked Mayor Curi, "How can we afford to lose it?"
GETTING THERE: Cartagena (pronounced Car-ta-HEY-na) is 400 miles north of Bogota, Colombia. It is safely reachable only by air. American Airlines and Avianca, the Colombian carrier, have flights via Bogota. Round-trip airfare from New York is about $900, from Miami $600, and both airlines offer one free stopover within Colombia.
LODGING: Most hotels are on the Bocagrande strip and include budget options for less than $30 a night. The five-star Hilton (www.hilton.com) has a private beach off-limits to vendors. Other five-star options include two atmospheric former convents in the Old City, both newly renovated: the Santa Clara, where double rooms go for $160 a night, and the Charleston, $130 double occupancy.
Many tourists favor the neocolonial Hotel Caribe in Bocagrande, a faded five-star where a double with breakfast is $43 per person. The Decameron is $60 per person, including three meals.
TRANSPORTATION: Car rentals are expensive and not worth the trouble. Taxis are cheap and plentiful in Cartagena, just a few dollars for any destination in the city. For day trips to the Rosario islands travelers fluent in Spanish can bargain for boats at the docks near the Convention Center. More reliable but pricier -- about $25 per person -- are boats available through travel agencies and hotels.
CURRENCY: The Colombian peso has lost about 20 percent of its value this year against the U.S. dollar, to the advantage of foreign tourists. One dollar is currently worth 1,550 pesos. Do NOT attempt to change money on the street. Con artists abound.
INFORMATION: For more information call the newly created Cartegena de Indias Convention and Visitors' Bureau at (57-5) 660-2414 or 2418. An Internet information site in Spanish was launched in October: www.cartagenadeindias.org. Spanish speakers can check the local newspaper: www.eluniversal.com.co.