With the Great Recession rewriting the rules of the economy and business, industry leaders are being proactive in attempting to expand the global market for recreational boats.
Nineteen U.S. companies and the National Marine Manufacturers Association will host a USA Pavilion at the second annual Cartagena International Boat Show in Colombia from March 22-24.
“We are happy to see the domestic market begin to recover, but at the same time we need to explore new markets to continue the growth of our brand,” says Joan Maxwell, president of Regulator Marine, one of the U.S. exhibitors. “There is a strong demand for American-made boats in Colombia, and fishing ranks among the top boating activities in the country.”
Other U.S. exhibitors at the fledgling show will include Armstrong Nautical Products, Bellingham Marine, Bennett Marine, Denison Yacht Sales, Dr. Shrink, Grady-White Boats, Malibu Boats and Outer Reef Yachts.
“We see the show as an opportunity to explore this market and understand the desires and needs of these customers with a minimal risk and a huge potential upside,” Maxwell says. “There’s a lot of water and a lot of fish to be caught off the coast of Colombia, and we’d like to see them caught aboard a Regulator.”
In addition to its USA Pavilion, the NMMA is playing an active role in the development of a seminar titled “What It Takes to Be the Perfect Dealer” as this emerging market works to develop a strong foundation.
Lou Sandoval, president and co-founder of Karma Yacht Sales in Chicago, has agreed to give the presentation in Spanish.
Industry leaders visited Colombia last July to explore potential opportunities in the increasingly attractive market.
“We believe there are significant opportunities to be had by U.S. companies there,” says Julie Balzano, who is one year into her newly created job as director of export development for the NMMA. “My role is to offer a comprehensive export development plan for our members.”
Balzano was part of a U.S. contingent that included NMMA president Thom Dammrich, the U.S. Superyacht Association and the Florida Yacht Brokers Association.
“Growing opportunities in this quickly emerging market include marina design and development, boat and yacht sales — fishing, cruising, center consoles, sailing, towboats — and supporting equipment such as electronics, fishing tackle, water toys, life vests and personal watercraft,” Balzano adds.
Colombia has the fourth-largest economy in Latin America and the region’s third-largest population, nearly 46 million, according to national statistics. It is also the only South American country with two seacoasts (Pacific and Caribbean).
Considered a largely middle-income country, Colombia has more than 200,000 people who earn more than $1 million annually, according to an NMMA report on the trip. Yet as of 2011 only 7,350 boats — pleasure and commercial — were registered there.
Colombia has one of the oldest democracies in Latin America. It has a boating-oriented culture and a focus on family and socializing. Fishing is popular, as is snorkeling, water sports and sunbathing, according to an NMMA report on the trip.
Colombia was the 26th-most-important export market for recreational boats and engines built in the United States in 2013, showing a very slight increase from 2012 through March 2013, Balzano says. Overall, the United States is Colombia’s No. 1 trading partner, according to the Colombian Embassy in Washington, D.C. More important, the Colombian government seems committed to making nautical tourism a top priority.
“In January of 2012 the Ministry of Trade, Industry & Tourism concluded a comprehensive feasibility study,” Balzano says. “The $400,000 study identified more than 70 potential marina sites and nautical bases along the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Colombia. Of those, five marina projects are slated to be developed in the short term.”
Destination on the rise
The NMMA trip was hosted by Proexport Colombia, the country’s public-private tourism and export organization, and it included visits to burgeoning marina spots at Cartagena, San Andres Island, Santa Marta and Puerto Velero.
Proexport recently released a “Cruising Guide to Colombia” for the U.S. market. The guide provides quality cruising charts and identifies the locations of new marinas planned around the Colombian Caribbean coastline.
“The use of trailered boats is not common, as most boat owners prefer to use dry storage in lieu of trailering. What Colombia lacks most at the moment is boating infrastructure,” Balzano says.
Security concerns are the first thing that comes to mind when many Americans think of visiting Colombia, but Balzano says the government has aggressively addressed the issue of crime against and the kidnapping of foreign visitors.
“Over the past 15 years the Colombian government has been proactively working to improve its country’s safety,” she says.
Proexport says security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including at tourist and business travel destinations, such as Bogota and Cartagena, and tourism has subsequently shown remarkable growth. The country went from receiving 600,000 tourists in 2000 to nearly 1.7 million in 2012.
International hotel chains such as Hilton, Radisson and Marriott and the cruise industry have increased their presence throughout the country.
“There has been a tremendous increase in the number of superyachts making the trip West through the Panama Canal to visit the U.S.’s West Coast and the Pacific region,” John Mann, chairman of the U.S. Superyacht Association, says in a statement. “The prime proximity of Colombia to the canal and below the hurricane zone makes it a natural stop for these traveling yachts.”
In the same statement assessing the trip, Ann Vernon, executive director of the Florida Yacht Brokers Association, noted the country’s proximity to Florida. It is about 1,100 miles from Miami to Cartagena.
“Combined with the free trade agreement, this makes it an ideal trading partner for us in Florida,” Vernon says.
“We encourage U.S. marine companies to invest in developing new and emerging markets. By setting up shop early they can build success and become the recognized brand in the industry,” Balzano says. “During our trip we noted that the Spaniards, French, Canadians and other European brands are already beginning to solidify their key relationships in this emerging industry.”
Balzano notes that the NMMA is seizing an opportunity for its members by establishing the first USA Pavilion at the show.
“U.S. builders and manufacturers benefit from preferential currency exchange rates, along with a free trade agreement, so the timing couldn’t be more perfect to engage in this market,” she says.
“Colombia offers a variety of water access points and promising infrastructure for a growing marine industry, and our collaborative efforts with Proexport Colombia will allow us to share our expertise and knowledge as we work together to develop the market,” Dammrich says in a statement.
This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.