Mayor Bob Buckhorn is spending the week in the South American nation of Colombia looking to build economic ties between that country and his city.
"The trip to Colombia is an opportunity to tell our story and make the case to businesses abroad that Tampa is the best place to live, work and play," Buckhorn said in a statement before he left over the weekend.
"I will market what we have to offer: Florida's largest port, a world-class airport and incredible economic potential," he added.
Buckhorn's trip is part of a larger visit led by Gov. Rick Scott and organized by Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency.
Buckhorn's $2,800 in expenses are being covered by the Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., Buckhorn's spokeswoman, Ali Glisson, said.
THEDC president Rick Homans is accompanying the mayor, as are representatives of the Port of Tampa, Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida's Small Business Development Center.
Homans said the trip is the first American trade mission to Colombia since a free trade pact between Colombia and the United States took effect in May.
"There's a lot of activity here, a lot of interest," Homans said, reached by phone while traveling with Buckhorn to meet the mayor of Bogota.
The U.S. ran a $6.8 billion trade deficit with Colombia in 2012, importing almost $19 billion in goods and exporting about $12 billion, according to the Census Bureau.
Florida exports to Colombia totaled almost $5.3 million in 2011, the most recent year for statistics, according to Enterprise Florida. Those exports included electronics, airplanes and parts and fertilizer.
Imports to Florida that year reached $3.8 billion, led by gold, cut flowers and petroleum products.
"The ties between Florida and Colombia are strong," said David Denslow, an economist at the University of Florida. "There is rising foreign direct investment from Latin American countries in Florida, and Colombia is prospering lately with the apparent prospect of peace with FARC."
FARC, whose English name is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, has mounted a 50-year Marxism-inspired campaign against the Colombian government. Peace talks between FARC and the government begin again in Cuba on Friday, according to published accounts.
Homans said the trip is about opening business channels that will benefit Tampa area businesses. That could include international flights between Bogota and Tampa, something local airport officials have sought at least since 2006.
"Meeting with Avianca (Colombia's national airline) down here is a big priority," Homans said.
Nearly a dozen businesses from the city and Hillsborough County will join Buckhorn and Homans in Baranquilla, one of Tampa's sister cities, starting today.
Homans said the group has arranged 70 meetings with Colombian counterparts through Friday.
"Our hope on a mission like this is that it results in actual deals that help our companies expand and add more jobs," Homans said.
Buckhorn's schedule on Monday called for meetings in Bogota with the Association of Colombia Flower Exporters, the American Chamber of Commerce in Colombia and Colombia's deputy minister of foreign trade.
He was also scheduled to visit U.S. Ambassador P. Michael McKinley.
This week's schedule also includes a meeting with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and lunch with the National Business Association of Colombia. He'll also formally open the Colombia office of the Tampa-based Holland & Knight law firm.
The trip is Buckhorn's first overseas this year. After taking office in 2011, he traveled to Israel and Panama on similar missions.
"Such trade missions can, in fact, be useful, though they are not always so," said Denslow, who recently accompanied an Illinois delegation on a trade mission to Recife, Brazil.
Having Buckhorn, Scott and other high-ranking officials on such trade missions is invaluable, said Joe Smith, president of the Florida Foreign Trade Association, based in Doral.
"It gives some influence as to the importance of the trade mission," Smith said. "This is important, that face-to-face."
Trade mission from Tampa
Mayor Bob Buckhorn leads a group composed of mostly Tampa-area businesses on a trade mission to Colombia and Barranquilla, Tampa's sister city in that country. Accompanying him are representatives from:
Source: Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Council