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Hot destination: Colombia

As violence declines, the number of tourists jumps 65 percent in three years.

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When they set out from their native Norway to travel around Latin America, it didn't occur to Silje Klokk and Tarjei Hueem to include Colombia - long considered South America's most dangerous country - on their three-month itinerary.

But as they hit some of the region's more popular tourist destinations, travelers they met along the way kept raving about Colombia and downplaying any security concerns Ms. Klokk and Mr. Hueem expressed.

"From what we were told, Venezuela is what Colombia was 10 years ago in terms of security," says Klokk. "It seemed safer to come here." So she and Hueem changed their plans and visited one of Colombia's prime attractions: the ancient Indian ruins of Ciudad Perdida, or the Lost City.

Tucked into the lush, dense jungles high in the mountains of Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Ciudad Perdida holds the ruins of one of the largest and oldest pre-Columbian settlements in the Americas. But drug-related violence and general lawlessness - not to mention 40 years of war - have kept all but the most intrepid travelers away.

The government of President Alvaro Uribe is intent on changing that. The president has taken a hard line against leftist rebels, and there has been a 78 percent drop in kidnappings since Mr. Uribe took office in 2002. Looking to cash in on that, Mr. Uribe's government has begun to promote Colombia as one of the world's hottest new tourist destinations.

Already, the arrival of foreign visitors to Colombia has jumped 65 percent since 2002, to 925,000 last year, according to Carlos Alberto Zarruk, Colombia's deputy minister for business development, who oversees tourism.

This is still a mere fraction of the 20 million tourists who flock every year to Mexico, Latin America's top tourist destination. But it surpasses neighboring Ecuador, which attracted just over 860,000 visitors last year.

Travel guides are taking notice of the trend. The Lonely Planet travel guides, for instance, picked Colombia as one of the 10 top travel hotspots for 2006.

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