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