, 1er journal des professionnels du tourisme francophone

Panama: the underrated destination…

French market on the rise in 2014

Since the launch of the direct flight Paris - Panama City by Air France, Panama is seducing more and more French visitors. The opening of a Lookéa Club by Look Voyages put the destination in the spotlight. Now, the destination is no longer featured in TO brochures as just an “extension” to Costa Rica or Colombia. Panama City is a destination in itself, with various advantages, the first one being its canal. The expansion of the airport, of the Panama canal, hotel development… the country could soon become a new touristic Eldorado.

Rédigé par Céline Eymery translated by Joséphine Foucher le Jeudi 19 Mars 2015

The French market showed the strongest increase in terms of visits in 2014 © Marcus -
The French market showed the strongest increase in terms of visits in 2014 © Marcus -
Panama wants its shining spot in the tourism world.

This small country of 78 200 km², that was in the shadow of Costa Rica, is now a destination on the rise! On the French market, it is attracting more and more visitors.

There were 26,243 French visitors to cross the Atlantic towards Panama in 2014, an increase of more than 79% compared to 2013 (14 977), according to official statistics.

France is seeing the largest increase, boosted by the establishment of a direct flight from Paris to Panama City by Air France, in November 25, 2013.

According to Cyril Graton of Tucaya Destination, this flight had an accelerating affect: “The direct flight opened new possibilities on the destination, and the launch of Lookéa by Transat put the destination in the spotlight.”

In fact, after a conclusive test in 2013, Look Voyages opened a labeled Club on the Pacific coast.

“We seized the opportunity with the opening of the Air France flight. The success was immediate. The new liaison also incited us to develop our model on regular flights with multi-duration stays» explains Armelle Le Scaon, Sales and Tour-Operator Director at Transat France.

The Transat Group has been present in this geographic zone since a few years. Panama enables to offer a new alternative, and it is working: “At the Lookéa in Panama, we can have up to 150 rooms in the high season, and for the entire group, we should reach 8,000 passengers in 2015.”

At TUI, increases are also noticeable: “we’re recording +75% on Nouvelles Frontières tours and very good results also on stays,” specifies a spokesperson of the Group.

As for Salaün Holidays, that sells Panama combined with Costa Rica, the numbers are also on the rise. “we’re at +27% in 2015 compared to 2014, in terms of business turnover” specifies Stéphane Le Pennec, Executive Director.

The destination is now seeking its independence on the brochures of tour-operators. Because often it is just an “extension” to Costa Rica. (See box: TOs that market Panama.)

Kuoni, that had included it in a high-end combined trip to Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua, launched, in 2014, a dedicated product in its “K” line of 9 days/ 7 nights, but doesn’t seem to have met the right audience yet.

“We’re a bit disappointed, the product is hybrid, both a tour and stay. We’re going to rethink the offer, starting with just a tour,” specifies Catriona Dempster, Tour Production Director at Kuoni.

She believes in its potential: “old Panama, and its wilderness, are just incredible, and the mixture of Pacific, Caribbean, is definitely an advantage. And for those who have traveled a lot, Panama has something new to offer.”

Finally, at Fram, Panama was also featured as a new long-haul destination for the Winter 2014-2015 season.

Upcoming: direct flights from Europe

Another indicator that the destination is becoming popular: all the major airline companies have opened direct flights or will soon.

TAP launched the line Lisbon - Panama in July 2014, and the results were instantaneous: +59.9% visitors coming from Portugal in 2014.

Lufthansa will begin its direct flights towards the Panama capital next November, and Iberia, that currently has 5 weekly frequencies from Madrid, should open a line departing from Barcelona.

The Tocumen international airport is sure to respond to this demand. The platform is expecting to double its capacity to reach 18 million passengers by 2016, thanks to the opening of a brand-new terminal.

“It is today’s largest hub in Latin American with 850 flights daily, and the extension of the airport will further intensify traffic,” explains Fabrice Mandon, Executive Director of Kevelair who decided to settle in Panama since last September through its branch Kevelair America.

Other than a charter service, the main activity of this company centers on DMC operations.

“We have a very large number of demands, especially on DMCs from our European clients. For me, Panama is a mixture of Switzerland and Dubai, in terms of business development,” he explains.

The Director strongly believes in the country’s future. “Panama’s GDP almost doubled in 4 years.”

In fact, according to the World Bank, it went from 28,814 billion USD in 2010 to 42,6 billion in 2013.

New DMCs in Panama

Other incoming agencies have also noticed the potential. Contact Tours (Contact USA) established itself there a year and half ago.

“This year will be Panama’s year, and everybody agrees that Panama City will become the Las Vegas/Miami of South America,” predicts Virginie Coletti, Director of the Panama Office of Contact Tours (Contact USA.)

The DMC managed the executive production of the TV show “Les Anges de la télé réalité 7 » (“The Angels of Reality TV 7 - translator’s note) of which a section took place in Panama.

“I bet that after the broadcast of this show, in late June, the feedbacks will be massive. And this destination wasn’t chosen at random!” she insures.

In fact, the country has many advantages, the first one being its canal!

A touristic advantage, but also a guarantee of stability in the country. A major argument for Jean-Philippe Henriet and his wife who also decided, one year and a half ago, to open their incoming agency: Panama Voyage.

“There is no doubt that the this is a destination of the future that is safe. The sanitary problems in Africa, the religious conflicts in the Middle-East, will redirect travelers towards new horizons,” explains Jean-Philippe Henriet.

And the canal is far from being the only attraction! “Lounging, beach, discovery, and culture, a great marketing melting-pot,” summarizes Armelle Le Scaon from Transat.

Including: two oceans (Atlantic and Pacific), encounters with indigenous peoples, three archipelagos (1 on the Pacific, 2 on the Caribbean), a mountain range, and a volcano, Baru, that culminates at 3,400m, a primary and tropical forest, the possibility of bird-watching…and the historical aspect with the Spanish conquest.

Hotels: International chains and luxury hotels

Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum - Photo by Editorpana Wikipedia
Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum - Photo by Editorpana Wikipedia
In terms of accommodations, the country is well equipped. It counts 24,116 rooms of which 14,476 are in Panama city.

In progress is a project of a hotel complex of 60 locales in Chiriqui, accounting for an investment of 2.3 million USD, that was launched last January.

The new government in power since July 2014 has also invested 500 million dollars in restoring the city of Colon (on the Caribbean side), a port city of the colonial period in the Caribbean that hosts ships transiting through the Canal.

A large convention center should also open in Panama City. The project was supposed to be finished in October 2014 but, for now, the construction has been stopped.

Located next to the Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum (opened on October 2nd, 2014), this building of more than 80 000 m² will have a total capacity of 20,000 people.

Major names in the hotel business are also placing their bets: Decameron in Miramar (Atlantic coast), Hyatt in Panama city, Carlston Resort in the Viveros island (Pacific coast, archipelago of Las Perlas).

Others are already established: Hilton, Waldorf Intercontinental, Marriott, Sheraton, Trump, Hard Rock hotel, Whyndham, Riu and most have infrastructures of less than 4 years.

Luxury hotels and B&B are also part of the picture. “The Panama has a large range of establishments, however, I hope that the destination won’t only develop in an “All inclusive” destination,” nuances Cyril Graton of Tucaya Destinations.

Finally, the massive work of the expansion of the Panama Canal, known as the project of the third set of locks, could offer new opportunities to Cruise companies. The inauguration was scheduled in August 2014, but it should be postponed to late 2015 or early 2016.

For Tucaya Destinations, in place since 12 years in Panama, the country is on the right track, but the efforts must be maintained: “we have to keep “marketing” the country to turn it into a destination of the future, if not, this momentum may slow down.”

Currently, on the French market, the promotion is directed by the Embassy, but in a month from now, a call for bids will be launched to design a new representative agency.

Meanwhile, Panama is expecting you at the COTAL workshop in Paris next April, and at the IFTM TOP RESA in September 2015.

To see and do:

Click on map to enlarge
Click on map to enlarge
Panama City: Panama’s capital. Sights: the old neighborhood of Casco Viejo, the ruins of the old city, the skyscrapers, the Frank Gehry Biodiversity Museum that opened in October 2014, and the canal!

The canal: a maritime canal that crosses the Panama isthmus in Central America, it links the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. It is 80 km long.

San Blas Island: Archipelago of 378 islands, ideal for lounging, swimming, boat riding, and diving. This islands make up an independent province completely governed by the inhabitants, the Kuna Indians.

Bocas del Toro Archipelago: for lounging, relaxing, and swimming.

Portobelo: one of America’s most important cities in the colonial period. It was the port where the majority of the treasures of Spain embarked towards Europe.

Chagres National Park: primary and tropical forest.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
- Forts on the Panama Caribbean Coast: Portobelo, San Lorenzo
- Darien National Park
- The cordillera reserves of Talamanca-La Amistad National Park
- Panamá Viejo archeological site and the Panama historical district
- Coiba National Park and its special zone of marine protection

What does the French Minister of Foreign Affairs have to say?

According to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, the level of security is quite satisfactory in Panama.

However, the Minister advises travelers against visiting certain zones and neighborhoods in the capital, as well as a few cities around Panama City.

Furthermore, visits to Colon, the country’s second city, are advised against.

“Due to the sporadic presence of guerrilleros, paramilitaries, or drug traffickers in the Darien province, adjacent to Colombia, it is advised against travelers to visit this province, other than for imperative reasons: their security cannot be guaranteed. This warning is also applicable to the oriental region of the San Blas province (white zone on map.) The border zone with Colombia is formally advised against (red zone on map.)”
Panama: the underrated destination…

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Tags : Panama

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