Tourism to Panama is expected $2.8 billion annually in revenues by 2016, according to the latest figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council, bringing with it a wealth of jobs and foreign investment.
The 2006 Travel and Tourism Economic Research report by the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) estimates last year’s visitors to Panama left behind more than $1.3 billion on everything from transport to accommodation, restaurants and other travel-related services.
This represents nearly 14 per cent of total exports, a figure which the WTTC estimates will grow to almost 17 per cent in ten years.
The number of tourists has also grown, going from one million in 2005 to 1.2 million in 2006.
“Tourism has grown a great deal over the last 10 years, ” admits Jaime Campuzano, President of the Panama Chamber of Tourism. In fact, arrivals to the Tocumen International Airport have grown by 80 per cent in the last decade, with cruise ship and land arrivals showing similar increases.
Despite the encouraging growth, the Chamber has been working closely with the Panamanian government to open the country up to serious tourism, capitalizing on the burgeoning Central American industry.
This year marks the start of a five-year, $39.5 million publicity campaign to market Panama as a tourist destination, aimed primarily at North and Latin American markets.
“This is the first time in our history we have launched such an aggressive campaign, with an assured budget, ” says Mr Campuzano.
The coming year will also see the release of the long-awaited National Tourism Plan, an ambitious outline of the strategy for developing the industry through to 2020.
“We have been working with the government to determine zones of tourism interest, areas for development, and different tourism products and strategies, ” says Mr Campuzano. “This is an important step which will begin in 2007. ”
Travel and tourism is seen as one of the big contributors to the country’s economy, bringing with it not only direct revenues, but also stimulating foreign investment.
This last is two-fold, explains Mr Campuzano; not only does tourism stimulate the development of the interior of Panama, with the construction of hotels, resorts, eco-tourist attractions and the like, but many of the tourists themselves return to invest in land and properties.
“Tourism produces a doubly positive effect, because they come as tourists, and later come back as investors, or to live permanently, ” points out Mr Campuzano.
“Real estate has grown, ” he adds. “North Americans and Europeans are coming to invest in real estate, many baby boomers are buying land, farms, properties. ”
Nearly $2.8 billion in economic activity was generated by travel and tourism in Panama last year, according to the WTTC report, which is expected to nearly double by 2016, at $5.4 billion.
The influx of money for development also means jobs in areas where poverty is most desperate. Nearly 40 per cent of Panamanians, most of them in rural areas, are classified as below the poverty line, and 12 per cent are destitute.
Mr Campuzano is optimistic about the benefits of tourism.
“According to the World Tourism Organization tourism is a proven eradicator of poverty, ” he says.
Indeed, tourism accounted for 129,000 jobs in 2006, according to the WTTC, nearly 11 per cent of all employment in the country. By 2016, the industry is expected to account for nearly 12 per cent of employment, or 171,000 jobs.
The challenge lays in making sure Panamanians develop the skills to meet the demand, turning from more traditional trades such as agriculture and cattle-farming to tourism and the service industry.
Toward that end, the government is working with international groups to provide training programs, and encouraging micro and small business loans.
“We see the development with great optimism, ” says Mr Campuzano. “We are working with the government and international institutions to train Panamanians in tourism.
“We are opening the first two hotel schools this year, and hoping for more. The universities are also broadening their range of technical training, and the government is investing heavily in the training and formation. ”
“The process has started, ” he points out, “and in the coming years we will be able to offer more and more qualified personnel to meet the demands of tourism. ”
Catherine Keogan is a writer and journalist living in Central America. For more news and information about Panama, please visit http://www.panamareals.com
Panama and Latin America News Site