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Panama’s tourism boom

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Last year Costa Rica welcomed a record 2.2 million tourists. Meanwhile, Panama received 1.7 million in only the first half of this year, a 5.2 percent year-on-year increase. Earnings over the period came to $1.1 billion, a 20 percent increase.

It's a cliché of travel brochures that countries have "something for everyone". But Panama comes close.

It may lack the medical facilities of Costa Rica or the surf of El Salvador. However, it has facilities such as the upcoming Waldorf Astoria for high-end travelers. Other market niches range from eco-lodges to hostels for backpackers.

Nor does Panama’s tourism strategy have all its eggs in the one basket. Americans predominate among tourists to Panama, but arrivals from South America are growing much faster.

In terms of who is growing faster, the answer depends on how different countries define a tourist.

More business travelers come to Panama than to all the rest of Central America combined, attracted by huge public works programs, especially the new canal, but also because the country has become the regional headquarters of dozens of multinationals.

These people are not vacationers; still, they spend money in Panama.

There are problems. Some tourism operators complain that there still are not enough connections by air. Others have complained that a boom in hotel construction is causing a drop in occupancy rates.

Other countries in the region wish that they had problems like these.