ITB 2023 Special Reporting
Panama's Five Deadly Sins of Tourism
By Casey Halloran
Monday, 15th September 2008
Lately, there has been plenty of discussion about Panama and its potential for tourism. Ruben Blades and IPAT are unveiling their "tourism master plan", hotel projects are in the works all over the country and the real estate market is booming. Despite all the talk, hope and speculation, Panama has little history of tourism success and no clear plan for success. Success is defined differently by many involved in these discussions, but more worrisome is that few agree on what defines failure.

Here are the Five Deadly Sins of Tourism that Panama must avoid:

1. Hyper-growth = Rushing Into Mistakes

Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was tourism to visit the ruins of modern-day Rome. A tourism infrastructure requires planning, training, rules and regulations. I am not a big fan of government, but in the case of tourism, there at least needs to be some zoning and long-term thinking that is enforced with smart laws. Panama is growing at such breakneck pace, this author has concerns that some of the areas with greatest tourism potential are being overrun with the most expedient projects, many of which have zero concern for long-term effects on ecology, economy or logistics.

2. Copycat-itis = Loss of Culture

Panama tourism development today lacks much that resembles anything uniquely Panamanian. Despite a culture that is as rich and wonderful as its world famous coffee, too much of the present development borrows on played out ideas from elsewhere. Panamanians are far too creative and proud to have their tourism landscape hijacked by unoriginal, cookie-cutter projects.

3. Eco-Unfriendly = Not Sustainable

Whether its an over crowded city, water front mega beach hotels, record breaking swimming pools or a tendency to look the other way while projects drain mangroves…it's pretty clear that Panama isn't attempting to mimic Costa Rica's success as a perceived "green" destination.

4. Service, Shmervice = No Return Clients

It is difficult to find a truly service-oriented business in Panama. Even harder still to find one that can cater to clients who don't speak Spanish. Panama faces an uphill battle on both fronts, with a shortage of labor trained in foreign languages and fewer still familiar with the adage that, "the customer is always right". Service training and language skills aren't the only challenges facing Panama's aim at becoming a tourism mecca; the country has a glut of public holidays that occur during peak tourism months. Good luck to the politician who tries to resolve that delicate issue.

5. "All-Exclusive" Projects = Angry Locals

Panama cannot forget to include locals and local culture as part of its future tourism . Development must not mirror the walled in "all-exclusive" disasters of Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, etc. where locals don't actively mix with tourists and exchange culture, ideas and memories. Walling out Panamanians is the fastest way to create resentment toward tourists who traveled all the way to meet and know them.

Despite these pitfalls, I do believe fiercely in Panama's potential. I will outline my suggested solutions to the possible issues above as well as WHY I am betting on Panama in future articles.

Originally from rural Pennsylvania and a graduate from the University of Richmond (Virginia), Casey is an entrepreneur and web marketer by trade. He divides his time between Costa Rica and Panama where he is a co-founder and investor of multiple tourism and real estate related businesses. He has resided in the region for over a decade. www.vacationtopanama.com 
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