Salo Shamah

Excelencias from the Caribbean & the Americas - - Contents -

Di­rec­tor of the Panama Tourism Author­ity (ATP)

DI­REC­TOR OF THE PANAMA TOURISM AUTHOR­ITY (ATP)

RE­LY­ING ON ITS RENOWNED AL­LURE AS A PLACE FOR SHOP­PING, IN­TER­NA­TIONAL FI­NAN­CIAL CEN­TER AND BEACH DES­TI­NA­TION, FULL OF PRO­TECTED AR­EAS AND IN­CRED­I­BLY BEAU­TI­FUL LAND­SCAPES, PANAMA HAS BEEN FORG­ING A ROCK-SOLID HO­TEL AND NON-HO­TEL IN­FRA­STRUC­TURE THAT KEEPS GROW­ING WITH EACH PASS­ING DAY IN SYNC WITH THE TRAVEL DE­MAND. THE CEN­TRAL AMER­I­CAN NA­TION HAS MAN­AGED TO GET PRIV­I­LEGED AIR­LIFT WITH THE REST OF THE AMER­I­CAS AND IS SEEK­ING TO BUT­TRESS ITS CON­NEC­TIONS WITH EUROPE. ABOUT THESE PLANS AND DREAMS, EX­CE­LEN­CIAS TALKED WITH MR. SHAMAH.

From a ho­tel stand­point, the pace things have been go­ing on in Panama is stag­ger­ing. What are your pre­vi­sions for the near fu­ture? Panama is blessed with its be­ing a shop­ping place, an in­ter­na­tional fi­nan­cial cen­ter and a place where the cri­sis has not hit hard –un­like many other coun­tries. Its econ­omy is on the rise, the coun­try has the world’s sec­ond-largest free trade zone, sea­ports that cater to all of Latin Amer­ica, the Canal, some 1,550 miles of coast­lines, over 1,500 is­lands and 40 per­cent of the ter­ri­tory un­der the pro­tected area cat­e­gory, fea­tur­ing land­scapes that have been de­clared World Her­itage and Bio­sphere Re­serves. We also have eth­nic di­ver­sity rep­re­sented by seven indige­nous tribes, and last but not least, ho­tel build­ing is march­ing on nearly at the same pace the coun­try’s de­mand as a travel des­ti­na­tion calls for. We are de­vel­op­ing par­a­disi­a­cal beaches on the Pa­cific coast by the hand of re­sorts and are cre­at­ing other des­ti­na­tions a bit more lux­u­ri­ous by means of bou­tique ho­tels. We have also be­gun to scout the to­tally un­ex­plored Caribbean area, with the ex­cep­tion of San Blas, home to the Kuna pop­u­la­tion, and Bo­cas del Toro with its reser­va­tions of African-ori­gin com­mu­ni­ties.

The open­ing of the Nikki Beach Ho­tel or the Breezes is a ref­er­ence for Caribbean ho­tels. Span­ish groups like Riu and Barceló are show­ing in­creas­ing in­ter­est in Panama. What other groups are try­ing their hand at your coun­try? NH is build­ing a ho­tel and Riu will open a spec­tac­u­lar 500-plus-room lodg­ing in 2011. In the month of May the Nikki Beach will open on the Pa­cific coast. And this ho­tel de­vel­op­ment is go­ing to get a leg up as soon as we se­cure bet­ter air­lift from the Toc­u­men air­port to the dif­fer­ent in­land points, as it just hap­pened now with the open­ing of the Pedasi des­ti­na­tion in the Azuero Penin­sula, also on the Pa­cific coast. This now ranks as one of Latin Amer­ica’s most spec­tac­u­lar sun-and-beach des­tina- tions and it’s be­ing served with a cou­ple of daily flights from Panama City, in an air­port lo­cated next to the shore. By means of those ini­tia­tives with the pri­vate sec­tor, we’re go­ing to get daily flights from Toc­u­men for po­ten­tial trav­el­ers who won’t have to buy a Madrid-panama and then a Panama-boca. In­stead, they’ll sim­ply buy the Madrid-boca con­nec­tion with a stopover at Toc­u­men and then grab a do­mes­tic flight to Boca. A sec­ond in­land air­port, prob­a­bly in the Agua Dulce or Penonome area, in cen­tral Panama, is a project that will get crack­ing in late 2010 and it must be ready by 2013.

What strat­egy do you have in store to make Panama a far more in­ter­est­ing des­ti­na­tion for the U.S. mar­ket? The U.S. is be­gin­ning to wake up from the cri­sis. It’s a cru­cial mo­ment for us, to kick off the pro­mo­tion with an edge. There are two ways to show­case the coun­try in a mar­ket: by the hand of in­sti­tu­tional pro­mo­tion or by means of ad­ver­tis­ing. For the time be­ing, we’re go­ing to stick to the ad­ver­tis­ing area, with such air­lines as Amer­i­can, Con­ti­nen­tal and Copa. We’ll see the routes they have to pro­mote the cities and piece to­gether pack­ages through Copa Va­ca­tions or Amer­i­can Air­lines Va­ca­tions, for in­stance.

Though it’s a world-class air­line with the most routes into the U.S., like two daily flights to L.A., for ex­am­ple, Copa is not known in the Amer­i­can mar­ket as an air­line that has one of the safest fleets and one of the finest ser­vices money can buy in Latin Amer­ica. We’re launch­ing a cam­paign un­der the tagline “Panama: Work, Play, Re­lax”, which are the things trav­el­ing peo­ple do in our coun­try: work, in­vest, play golf, go surf­ing, go fish­ing and re­lax in spas and beaches.

How is Latin Amer­ica go­ing for Panama as a des­ti­na­tion? We have many daily flights from Mex­ico, not only with Copa, but also with Mex­i­cana, let alone ex­cel­lent re­la­tion­ships with Mex­ico. Mex­i­cans come to Panama mostly to go shop­ping. We’re work­ing on mul­ti­des­ti­na­tion of­fers with Guadala­jara, Jalisco, and also with some cities in Colom­bia, and we’d like to do it with Cuba. We’ve al­ready dis­cussed that with min­is­ter Mar­rero and we’re will­ing to start that col­lab­o­ra­tion. We have 36 weekly flights from Brazil, we’re in­creas­ing the routes and the main ob­jec­tive with that is to make big-time Brazil­ian com­pa­nies set up shop in Panama by reel­ing them in through fis­cal in­cen­tives and the lo­gis­tics around the Canal as a way to cre­ate jobs. Once that hap­pens, we’ll have what we call eth­nic tourism: the rel­a­tives of work­ers com­ing from Brazil to visit them, and that’s go­ing to work like a chain re­ac­tion. We’re also con­sid­er­ing Colom­bia as one of our top out­bound mar­kets in Latin Amer­ica, and in the case of Ecuador we’re try­ing to have an open-skies pol­icy and re­move

visa re­quire­ments for its na­tion­als. Ar­gentina is a po­ten­tial mar­ket that ac­tu­ally bears watch­ing.

In the Caribbean, what are the coun­tries Panama is most in­ter­ested in? Mul­ti­des­ti­na­tion is Panama’s per­fect busi­ness model with the Caribbean. We can pro­vide the re­gion with trav­el­ers from Ar­gentina, Colom­bia and Cen­tral Amer­ica. And they could bring in tourists from the UK be­cause they have Bri­tish Airways and Vir­gin At­lantic flights. We want to talk Copa into open­ing routes to such des­ti­na­tions as Bar­ba­dos.

How is Panama deal­ing with the cruise in­dus­try and wastes, the en­vi­ron­ment and the non-prof­itabil­ity of ho­tels? What plans do you have in mind to ad­dress those is­sues? In 2009 we wel­comed 194 cruises with 300,000 pas­sen­gers. Since the month of Septem­ber, a Pull­man­tur cruise has been dock­ing in on a weekly ba­sis with 2,000 pas­sen­gers aboard, and that’s go­ing to last for nine months. Now is the time when cruise lines are go­ing to have col­lab­o­ra­tion from the Pana­ma­nian govern­ment. We’re at­tend­ing all meet­ings and con­ven­tions they are invit­ing us to. To­gether with those cruise lines, we’re work­ing on an un­prece­dented joint plan on public­ity co­op­er­a­tion

As far as wastes are con­cerned, I must say that’s one of my big­gest ques­tions to the cruise com­pa­nies. To­day’s ships are not like the ones we had some 20 years ago. They work as re­cy­cle-model cities. And pas­sen­gers, if they are go­ing to spend the night aboard the ves­sel, then they go down to a ho­tel and gen­er­ate there the same amount of solid and liq­uid wastes as if they were aboard the ship. The sole dif­fer­ence here is that cruise lin­ers have come up with an eco­log­i­cal model that will even­tu­ally be im­ple­mented on the ground as soon as it be­comes prof­itable.

As to ho­tel oc­cu­pancy, I must say that most of the peo­ple –at least 60 per­cent– who travel to a coun­try and take a home­port to move on to other Caribbean des­ti­na­tions aboard a cruise, come back to visit the coun­try they took the home­port from. So, the cruise is just a way of know­ing the des­ti­na­tion in a way they would have never known it. We want to make a first-string home­port and that’s in no way go­ing to hurt our ho­tel port­fo­lio.

What is the govern­ment do­ing in terms of in­fra­struc­ture to pro­mote the travel in­dus­try and turn Panama into a more mod­ern, at­trac­tive and com­mu­ni­cated city with the rest of the coun­try? One of the things I like the most about tourism is that any road, any sew­er­age built to drain waste loads away from a re­gion is good for tourism. All in­fra­struc­ture works de­signed to im­prove liv­ing stan­dards for the peo­ple are good for tourism. There’s no such thing as in­fra­struc­ture ex­clu­sively de­signed for tourists, ex­cept those built in con­ven­tion cen­ters or any other place like that. If you im­prove wa­ter treat­ment sys­tems in Bo­cas del Toro, that will not only ben­e­fit the peo­ple, but also the tourists. We have put to­gether the most ag­gres­sive in­fra­struc­ture in­vest­ment plan we’ve ever im­ple­mented na­tion­wide, with over $13 bil­lion worth of work over the next four years. We’ll have a sub­way de­part­ing the Toc­u­men in­ter­na­tional air­port and serv­ing all Panama City. We’re build­ing the road con­nect­ing Bo­quete with Boca, a coastal high­way serv­ing the north­ern area of Ver­aguas and that could even get to Palenque and both way in and out of Colon. It’s meant to be a four-lane megabuck project that will hook up all the two ma­jor beach ar­eas of the coun­try on the Pa­cific coast, which are Santa Catalina and Pedasi. These are in­fra­struc­ture works that are not un­der­way just for tourism, yet they will help a sec­tor that chips in 10.2 per­cent of Panama’s GDP

BY JOSE CAR­LOS DE SAN­TI­AGO

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