Actor, Singer, Composer, Politico Ruben Blades
I went in to my meeting with sitting IPAT Tourism Minister Ruben Blades not quite sure what to expect. After his response to a blog I’d written and my retort, did Mr. Blades bring me in to continue the debate? To convince me that his Tourism Master Plan would allay all my fears? Or perhaps to discuss the merits of Salsa vs. Merengue?
I was hoping for the best and that’s pretty much what I got. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being Ruben distracting me, then kicking me in the crotch, and 10 being Mr. Blades appointing me Grand Poobah of Panama Tourism (with all rights and privileges), I’d rate the meeting a 7.
To start, Ruben was on time (whereas I was 3 minutes late), extremely friendly and generous with his time. His office was a flurry of activity, yet he remained engaged during our 2.5 hour discourse. A few highlights:
- Ruben’s Funny — Mr. Blades is refreshingly informal and pretty darn funny. We spoke in Spanish 95% of the time and he made me laugh aloud more than once with various stories, hand motions and interesting mouth noises. This confirmed the generally accepted notion that Mr. Blades is a charmer.
- The “MasterPlan”, Coming To Theatres SOON! — In addition to face time with Sr. Blades, I also met with Jaime Cornejo, one of the architects of the IPAT Plan Maestro for tourism. I asked several questions as to what The Plan is trying to accomplish and how. They did their best to lay out the tenets in very broad strokes. I was fairly confused and was forced to conclude that it will be easier to have intelligent discussion on the subject once we know just what the heck is IN this Plan exactly. Srs. Blades and Cornejo talked about how The Plan will lay a foundation from which Panamanian tourism can START. After explaining to me just how archaic the IPAT organization was when Mr. Blades inherited the organization, this makes sense. I forget at times how nascent the industry and its governing bodies here really are. I want to talk about project density and height restrictions, while IPAT is busy delcaring Bocas del Toro “Tourism Zone # 9″. While I did not leave the meeting with a clear idea of WHAT to expect from the Master Plan, nor WHEN it is coming, I could deduct that Mr. Blades and his team have put a lot of care and research into its creation.
- Mr. Blades Top Concern: FLIGHTS — I asked Mr. Blades what he felt was the biggest limiting factor in Panama’s tourism growth. He instantly replied “infrastructure”, then went on to explain he meant better access to gasoline for yachts, more roads to remote destinations and most importantly, MORE FLIGHTS to Panama. While I do agree that infrastructure is vital for growth, I would argue that this is NOT Panama’s #1 worry. Costa Rica has a far inferior infrastructure, yet manages to attract throngs of tourists. Without more lodging (groups of which form a destination) there is no reason for more travelers to come TO Panama, nor for more flights to be scheduled. I realize that the hotels/flights dilemma is a chicken-or-egg situation, but it is far easier and faster for airlines to add more routes than it is to build a new hotel.
- Tourism Loans: BRILLIANT! — One of the ideas discussed with Mr. Blades that I felt was on the money was IPAT’s push for government incentives in the financial sector. The goal is to funnel more loans for tourism-related businesses. This would go a long way to provide the additional incentives that I believe are necessary to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in Panama’s tourism sector. I myself have been struggling with a ridiculously involved loan application for my tiny Pedasi Hotel project. If the process were easier, I may have built a second hotel by now.
- Ruben’s Gracious — After a bevy of coffee, water and assorted juices, Ruben excused himself to his en-suite executive bathroom. Upon returning, he asked me if I also needed to use the services. I wanted to scream “sweet Jesus yes!”. I appreciated the courtesy and returned the favor by not spying in his medicine cabinet.
- Trust The Government? — After some friendly back and forth as to what responsibilities in Panama’s tourism growth lie with the private sector vs the public sector, I asked Mr. Blades what I could do to assist IPAT’s efforts. His response: “Have more trust in what we’re doing.” Fair enough. It is easy sport to second guess the actions of the local government. Often these criticisms sound more like shrill, sweeping attacks against Panama, rather than proposals for alternative solutions. However, my beef with IPAT’s strategy has been their decisions seem to be made in a vacuum. Perhaps my vision is skewed and indeed IPAT has done the extensive polling of the private sector. Mr. Blades ensured me this IS the case. However, after the 3rd time Ruben that referred to me as “a blogger” (which represents about 1% of my time), I could not shake the feeling that he still has NO IDEA who I am. Reading my resume aloud in the IPAT office seemed as kooky as my cousin John’s golf swing. Instead I tried to subtly convey to Sr. Blades that my little Panama Travel Agency is one of the few bringing high end, individual (not cattle tours nor cruise ships) tourists to Panama that IPAT says they want. I guess I should have started our meeting with the whole “who am I?” thing, but I assumed he’d read my response to his response where I reminded him that we’d met prior. Given that I have never heard from anybody at IPAT prior to my blog posts, I can only assume that my company was overlooked in their extensive opinion polling process due to some sort of clerical error.
- Ruben Blades: Singer/Composer/Actor….Hotelier? – I am not an actor. But Ruben IS. So I couldn’t be certain whether he was sincere or trying to play to my love for boutique, high end hotels. Near the end of our meeting he stood up and told me that after his term as IPAT Minister is up, he’s considering building his own mini-chain of unique, small hotels throughout Panama. The type of properties he described, ones that incorporate the local lore & architecture and provide a superior guest experience, sounded as if they jumped from the pages of my mind….or my blog. Anyhow, I thought it was pretty neat, even if a performance. I guess we’ll see in a few years if he’s serious. But all pantomime aside, I think that a signature line of Blades Hotels would kick butt if the concept were executed.
- Mr. Blades Is Tough: Before I left, Ruben made sure to mention that he would greatly appreciate if in the future I were to check my facts with him personally on any IPAT-related story before going to print. It was so nicely phrased, you’d swear it was a request and not an order. Who knows? Maybe he was telling me I can call him anytime to get the full skinny. But it felt more like a, Godfather-esque muscle move. If so…he nailed the part, which made me think he’d be great in a follow up to the Al Pacino classic Carlito’s Way.
It was a interesting meeting and one that felt relaxed and productive. I am very appreciative that Ruben gave me so much of his time and set the meeting. I am not sure what his take on the day was. He may still think I’m a mystery blogger with a hidden agenda, a know-it-all Yankee, a real estate opportunist or a naive outsider. But I am a just a guy who paid his tourism dues in Costa Rica, fell in love with Panama and wants passionately to see this country compete.
I agree with Mr. Blades that there is plenty to celebrate about Panama and IPAT’s success in elevating tourism here. It is impossible for me to write this and not sound condescending, but in criticizing Panama, I attempt do so in the spirit of the gentle scoldings my grandfather gave me as a kid. If I didn’t meet his expectations, he let me know he loved me but expected more.
Mr. Blades I genuinely love Panama, I believe in its potential and I expect more from its tourism sector. Let me know how I may be of service to the cause.
|Written by Casey Halloran|
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