Spotlight on Panama
Along with predictably pleasant weather that hovers near 80 degrees Fahrenheit all year long, Panama offers visitors a wealth of culture, natural beauty, and recently, an infusion in high-end hospitality. For meeting planners looking for an exotic—yet affordable—locale their groups can reach with ease, Panama checks all the boxes.
1. Access: It all starts with getting there, and thanks to the dozen direct flights each day from North American cities, that task is relatively easy. There are also direct flights from Europe, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Panama’s commitment to tourism development through 2020 has resulted in infrastructure enhancements t
hat include the country’s airports. Tocumen Airport in Panama City, for example, will double it capacity in the coming years, paving the way for some 18 million passengers to pass through its doors in 2016. A new Airport of Rio Hato is also in the works.
2. Affordability: Panama is one of the region’s most affordable capital cities, and its economy is growing fast—the fastest in Latin America, according to a CNN report of May 17, 2013. Since the official unit of currency, the balboa, is linked to the U.S. dollar (and the U.S. dollar is the paper money in circulation), meeting planners can save commissions on currency exchanges. Plus, U.S. companies holding qualified meetings in Panama enjoy a tax holiday. Visitors to the country even receive 30 days of free health insurance.
3. Attractions: Everyone should see the workings of the Panama Canal in their lifetime. When this marvel of engineering opened in 1914, its traffic consisted of about 1,000 ships annually. Today that number is more than 15,000. And with a third, wider lane of locks under construction, capacity will grow further still in 2015.
Frank Gehry’s kaleidoscopic museum of biodiversity, set for a soft opening in December, sits at the mouth of the canal, and promises another memorable must-see. The new convention center is slated to open in 2015 right next door. It will hold groups of up to 10,000 people and feature views of the canal.
Panama City’s Old Town, or Casco Viejo, was built and settled in 1673. Today, a UNESCO World Heritage site, it brims with character and begs for exploration of its art galleries, gourmet restaurants, and corner dives.
4. Encounters: Seven ethnic communities live in Panama, each one fascinating. The Emberá community, for instance, can be found in Gatun Lake and in villages along the banks of the Chagres River. They’ve opened their villages to visitors, who can explore their culture via canoe rides, dances, and handicrafts. In the Kuna Yala archipelago, formerly the San Blas archipelago, Kuna Indians live in villages and uphold the traditional lifestyle—amidst some of the most pristine scenery imaginable. The opportunity begins with a 20-minute plane ride from Panama City.
For encounters with nature, Panama offers them in abundance. A country slightly smaller than South Carolina, Panama boasts the Western Hemisphere’s second largest rain forest—second only to the Amazon Basin. Along with the 1,800 islands that dot the Caribbean and Pacific; the country’s unique shape and location between two bodies of water means you’re never far from a beautiful beach.
5. High-end hospitality: International hospitality brands know a good thing when they see it, and they’ve set their sights on Panama. Recent projects by Waldorf Astoria, Trump, Ritz-Carlton, Hard Rock, Hilton, JW Marriott, RIU, Westin, and others embody the latest in group technologies and amenities. The country now has some 24,000 hotel rooms (13,000 in Panama City alone) and 550,000 square feet of meeting space for events.