Note to readers: I originally wrote this letter back in September of 2006. It was my reaction after attending two successive AMCHAM tourism conferences. I was invited as a speaker at last year’s event, due in no small part to this letter circulating and some local friends who felt I might make an interesting spectacle. Unfortunately, as in years prior, Ruben exited the event immediately after speaking himself. Thus, he wasn’t able to actually hear any of the speakers who followed.
I hope this letter finds you well. To begin, I’m a big fan of your movies. But all flattery aside, I would like to humbly propose to you a few ways to make Panama the # 1 tourism destination in Latin America. First, we need to decide what # 1 should mean. Should it mean the most volume? Should it mean the most satisfied visitors? Or should it simply refer to the highest gross tourism dollars earned? By setting the bar high, Panama could become the ONLY high-end, sustainable destination in Latin America. The goal would be to move enough tourists to make a large economic impact, while still maintaining Panama’s unique culture and environment. In short, to create a tourism destination that retains Panama’s local flavor, landscape and natural beauty: a model that will be sustainable for the generations to come.
High End AND Sustainable?
Panama is in the perfect situation to learn. Neighboring countries like Costa Rica and Dominican Republic as well as other luxury destinations in the Caribbean and South Pacific have set impressive eco-tourism standards. When I say “sustainable” or “eco”, you may immediately think I’m a granola-eating hippie who wants to cater to and consort backpackers, Grateful Dead fans and Greenpeace types. Not the case. I am at heart, a businessman. And as a businessman, I want Panama to be a tourism product that will not only be viable to me, but also to my grandchildren. I say this because I love Panama and would hate to see it converted into Disneyland or Waikiki. I also say this because I want to to sell vacations to the high-end traveler: the traveler that is the least damaging and the most beneficial to Panama.
Fewer boots on the ground in Panama would naturally mean less impact on the country (culture, roads, drinking water, food, language, folklore, indigenous communities, landscape and wildlife). If we can move 1 million tourists who spend $8,000 per vacation instead of 2 million tourists who spend $4,000, common logic would have me thinking Panama will earn the same net income, yet with half the number of hotel rooms, toilets flushing, etc. Is it better in the auto world to be a Bentley or a Hyundai?
Panama needs to sit back and think hard about what is a future worth creating for a semi-dormant tourism giant. If Panama does not consciously decide its future soon, then a throng of foreign investors and tourists will do it for us. I cannot pretend to speak for all of Panama, but I will tell you MY vision of the ideal Panama of the future. Were I of influence in Panama, I would create a nationwide campaign, “Yo Creo En Panama” designed to get the entire country behind a series of concepts designed to make Panama known and respected worldwide as a truly Authentic, Sustainable and Unique tourism destination.
The tenets of my plan:
1. Maintain Cultural Identity – Panama has a wonderful local culture that is totally unrivaled in Latin America. Unlike the citizens of many of its neighbors, when a Panamanian goes to the U.S. for University, he or she COMES BACK. Panamanians truly love their country and have a music, arts and dining vibe that is distinctly Panama. I believe it is important that as Panama welcomes more foreigners to its already diverse population, it must fully embrace all the folklore and truly Panameño life that goes on here. From Kunas to Veraguas, investing in the protection of cultural heritage with National holidays and grade school education on Panama’s rich history is essential to maintain this “authentic” identity: this is the Panama that tourists will come to see for years and this is the Panama that locals will feel proud of.
2. Maintain Natural Beauty – Preserving the natural beauty and biodiversity of Panama is essential. Forget about the ethical reasons that make this point obvious and allow me to appeal to your wallet. While the rest of the world is chopping down rainforest, putting condos in the Everglades and pushing another creature on the verge of extinction, Panama has the excellent opportunity to make itself known worldwide as a true defender of the environment. By passing strict laws to protect historical sites, national parks and endangered species, Panama will prove itself as a newsworthy and stunningly unique tourism destination. Panama cannot allow its great treasures to be plundered; for their protection and stewardship will lead far greater returns down the road.
3. Avoid Condo Complex – Tourists are familiar with beach condos. They’re not new. They’ve uglied the beach skylines of once-attractive destinations like Waikiki, Myrtle Beach, and Daytona Beach (though, Daytona may never have been beautiful). There’s nothing authentic about towers at the beach. Worse, they destroy land values behind them because they block ocean views. If Costa Rica did one thing right, it was to limit the height of ocean-side buildings. This creates a more subtle beach skyline that has an eco-friendly feeling to it. It also makes guests feel like they’re in the tropics instead of some cookie cutter beach town elsewhere in the world. In marketing 101, they called this “differentiation”. In order for Panama to set itself apart from a very competitive tourism world it needs to be unique, authentic and sustainable. Harsh lessons have been learned by developers in the destinations mentioned above. The minute Panama’s coastline looks and feels like anywhere else…it can only charge as much for room nights as anywhere else.
4. Create “Authentic” Destinations – Large scale projects should be avoided because resort towns always feel like resort towns. Panama should instead focus on the proliferations of mid-size hotels that support, employ and integrate with the local villages. Towns like Pedasi, Changinola and Colon must modernize and still retain local flavor.
HOW does Panama make high end, “authentic” tourism a reality?
Here’s my 9-step plan.
1. Improve customer service through education and awareness (please and thank you, Panama!) campaigns
2. Relax immigration and protectionist business laws to enable immigrants with the proper know how to pass along essential tourism/service knowledge and skills
3. Pass strict governmental regulations on tourism, commercial and residential development
4. Provide (more) incentives for successful small hoteliers to do business in Panama5.
5. Provide incentives and tax breaks for projects that meet minimum eco-friendly standards (solar power, minimal water use, internal treatment plants, minimal deforestation and earth moving).
6. Provide incentives for tourism businesses to give back to the local community in which they operate:
- Tax breaks for donations to local schools
- Tax breaks for charitable contributions to other approved non-profit organizations that foster community growth, eco-awareness, preserving cultural and natural history
- Tax breaks for on the job training
- Tax breaks for sending staff to specified schools for hospitality and service training
- Tax breaks for donating renewable resources (solar, water treatment) in the nearby towns and village
- Tax breaks for sending staff to eco-education and natural history training
7. Create a world-class Hospitality Major at the University of Panama
- Bring in great professors and guest lecturers
- Take measures to promote and give incentive to future students to pursue degrees in Tourism
- Offer classes to anyone interested in learning about tourism, hospitality, guiding, Panama history and the key skills and knowledge that Panama’s workforce will need to service the millions of tourists on their way here.
8. Sponsor National Holidays
- Reinforce national, cultural and ethnic pride with fantastic state-sponsored holidays
- Re-educate the public on the vibrant cultural and natural history of Panama
- Afro-Caribbean Pride Week – focused on the food, history and music of the Afro-Carib influence in Panama.
- Canal History Week – installations at all the malls, schools and special expos at the Canal Museum and Miraflores Locks
- Native Tribes Week – all native indigenous cultures parade in Panama City, craft fair, educational seminars at local hotels.
- National Parks Week – special rates at all National Parks, one endangered species per year highlighted.
- Colonial Panama Week – Portobello lore and Casco Viejo on display in respective areas.
9. Keep It Safe
- Share the wealth in local communities
- Hotels employ locals, re-invest in local schools, training
- Government promises funds for some local town infrastructure where developers demonstrate sustainable plans
- Provide adequate police force to prevent locals and tourists from behaving badly
Thanks for your attention Sr. Blades. It is great to know that you also share my passion for Panama. I hope that in ten years, you and I can look back and say, yes, we made the right moves. We had a vision, we set the bar high, and we enabled Panama to become one of the most admired tourism destinations in the world.
|Written by Casey Halloran|
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