2013 – a very good year for tourism in Panama

This post is also available in: Spanish

Ernesto Orilllac, deputy administrator of the Tourism Authority, reviews the policies which are putting Panama on the map

by Craig Weincek

Over 2.3 million people have visited Panama in 2013, making it the third year in a row that over 2 million visitors have visited a country of less than 4 million citizens.

Ernesto “Tito” Orillac, the Deputy Administrator of Tourism, believes that even though tourism represents approximately 10 % of the economy that it “benefits the quality of life for all Panamanians” by providing avenues of development in every sector of our society.” Not only does this ever growing number of visitors support the standard tourist concerns such as hotels, restaurants and tour companies, but the money they spend also benefits other businesses such as retailers. In fact, every citizen can take advantage of the improvements to infrastructure that are primarily in place to bolster tourism.

$3.5 billion to the economy

It has been estimated that tourism brings as much as $3.5 billion into the economy.

Panama’s star attraction – the Canal.

Panama’s star attraction – the Canal.

Orillac explained that the Tourism Authority of Panama (the ATP for Autoridad de Turismo) focused on three major concerns in their effort to promote international tourism under the leadership of the Director Salo Shamah.

Their three main points of emphasis are connectivity, infrastructure and product; and Orillac believes that the ATP has been successful in consolidating Panama as a destination. “For a long time, we’ve been a strong regional player,” Orillac pointed out, “but now we’ve become a global player.”

With the Panama Canal, the country has always been involved with worldwide commerce, but let’s take a look at the three strategic points and see how improvement in each area has led to another year of progress in the field of tourism.


It could be said that 2013 was the year that Panama opened its doors to direct flights from around the world. With its partner COPA Airlines, Panama has successfully established itself as the aviation hub of the Americas, but now flights are beginning to arrive from not only Holland but from Spain, France and Canada as well as the United States and the Caribbean.

In addition to a vast network of international COPA flights, American, Delta, KLM, Iberia and TAP (from Portugal) airlines are flying into Tocumen Airport (PTY) regularly. Over the past four years, 22,598,200 passengers have transited PTY.

Rapidly growing markets

South America, a market that is growing rapidly, is also connected by COPA and other airlines like Conviasa with flights from Venezuela and Nicaragua. While direct flights from major cities like Boston, Paris and Toronto are already arriving; plans are underway for London, possibly two locations in Germany and even New Delhi.

Orillac points out that local connectivity is also vital so that the entire country can be available to the growing flood of tourists. So, not only was Tocumen expanded into the largest international airport in Latin America with $839 million allocated to make it even grander, but two regional airports were substantially upgraded and a third new international airport was constructed that will make wide cross sections of the isthmus accessible by air both regionally and internationally.

Airport expansions

Tocumen Airport

Tocumen Airport

The brand new Scarlette Matinez International Airport has just recently opened and already flights from Canada are scheduled to arrive in Rio Hato making getting to the Pacific beaches quicker and more convenient.

David’s Enrique Malek International Airport has been greatly expanded and opens the doors to the province of Chiriquí with Bocas del Toro and especially Bouqete with its new four-lane highway making it a breeze up to the mountains.

Enrique Adolfo Jiménez Airport has finally completed its transition from a military airfield to a small regional terminal to its current revitalized status as Colon’s regional and international aviation destination and a viable link with the cruise industry, which is growing steadily at the northern Atlantic end of the canal.


Obviously, new and improved infrastructure is required and closely related to connectivity. Highways connecting Colon to Panama City and David with Boquete and the airport system are examples of infrastructure that promote connectivity. In the near future the new Metro rail system combined with a visitor friendly bus service will greatly improve getting around the city not only for residents but for visitors as well.

Another important infrastructure upgrade that supports tourism is the availability of hotel rooms. Tourists won’t come if there is no place for them to stay. In this regard, Orillac is proud of the fact that since 2008 ATP has encouraged the hotel industry to almost double the number of rooms to a total now of 16,000 in the city and 12,000 in the rest of the country.

Conventions, the answer to hotel occupancy

To be honest, Shamah admits that there are more rooms currently available than demand with an estimated total of 30,000 rooms by the end of 2014. However infrastructure is also an answer to this situation. While the immediate result of this surplus might be consumer-friendly prices, the long-term response involves infrastructure.

One of the goals of ATP is to promote Panama as a convention and conference center and a new world-class convention complex is planned on Amador Bay to replace the seemingly inadequate Atlapa Center, which is up for sale, with no bidders. For example there is already a 7,000 to 8,000 pediatric doctor convention scheduled for 2019. All those doctors could very well need additional hotel space. The controversial Cinta Costera III, the viaduct highway around Casco Antiquo, was proposed primarily as a connector with the planned convention and hotel complex again demonstrating the interrelationship between connectivity and infrastructure.

The Brand

The slogan is Panama—The Way, which is an adaptable way of saying that whether the traveler is in transit to another part of the world; looking for a diversified location for a vacation at the beach or in the mountains; or seeking an affordable place to retire; or an investment opportunity, that Panama has the infrastructure and connectivity to make it happen.

For much of Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, Panama has been and is increasing its status as a shopping mecca with Albrook Mall being one of the largest shopping centers in Latin America. That’s why a new hotel has opened there beside the terminus of the new Metro system and right next to the regional airport.

Shoppers crowding into a store for Black Friday bargains.

Shoppers crowding into a store for Black Friday bargains.

It can’t be a destination for shoppers without the connectivity and infrastructure to support it. People can now travel to the Colon Free Zone by the Panamanian Railroad, and also by the vastly improved toll road and now by air as well. MultiPlaza Pacifico has also recently expanded by 100 stores. The recent Black Friday promotion by ATP brought an additional 10,000 shoppers to the area.

Branding is another way of expressing a country’s reputation and tourists are almost always concerned about service and safety. That’s why visitors are offered a free 30-day insurance policy so they don’t have to worry if they become injured or sick while in country.

Orillac also revealed a little known program that should help improve service and the reputation of the country’s service industry. The ATP is sponsoring a certification of quality program that encourages the private sector to raise the bar when it comes time to provide service to its customers. Right now there is a pilot program that teaches quality service practices to certain hotels, restaurants, travel agents, tour operators and guides. The plan is for this program to be nationwide within a year or two. Not just tourists but the often complaining expat community and patrons in general will benefit from polite, professional, trained staff providing efficient and maybe even quick service.

A good year

Recently, at a conference of the American Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Panama, their topic was ABC—To Bring Tourism to Panama: Awareness; Business; Connection. Sounds familiar doesn’t it. ATP, with its similar set of priorities has consistently brought up the numbers since 450,000 tourists visited in 1999, with the average visitor now staying eight days and spending about $270 per day.

As far as brand awareness is concerned, Panama has been getting plenty of good press over the past year. Standard and Poor’s has placed Panama fourth in the world for airport infrastructure and rated it best for connectivity. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal has declared “Panama’s the Place,” while reports in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times as well as on CNN have all been positive. A report in The Economist promised a high quality of life at a relatively low cost. And of course there was the Gallup poll reported by ABC news that called Panamanians the happiest people in the world.

With visa requirements waved for citizens of 38 additional countries from Angola to the Ukraine, no wonder COPA Airlines feels that “Panama is Possible.” It’s not only possible, it’s “The Way.”

New Hotels in 2013

Las Américas Golden Tower—Groupo Talarne’s first hotel outside

of Columbia

New Westin Panama—in Costa del Este

Rancho Los Toros—small complex in San Carlos

Royal Sonesta and Casino—with restaurant and spa in the heart

of the city

American Trade Hotel—historic building renovation on

Plaza Herrea

The Point—formerly known as the Punta Galleon. An upgrade

on Contadora

Victoria Hotel and Suites—a new Clarion hotel in El Congrejo

Casa del Sol Bed&Breakfast—on Contadora

Tryp Panama Albrook Hotel—near the soon-to-be Metro and the mall

Waldorf Astoria Panama—Calle Uruguay

Aloft Hotel—boutique hotel across from Atlapa


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