How much has investment in the hotel industry gone up in the country?
I don't have the latest figures, but over the last couple of years hotel infrastructure has nearly tripled. Several thousand rooms have yet to open in the city.
A hotel like the Marriott costs $40 million dollars, and the amount invested per hotel reaches between $50 and $60 million, depending on its location and the number of bedrooms. You multiply that by the number of facilities that exist to know the actual total.
The biggest investment in tourism has been in the hotel industry. This situation is quite particular, because you can't just pick up the structures and take them somewhere else; they stay where they were built, whether business goes well or poorly.
How many new rooms are expected to open in the coming months?
Approximately 3,000 more hotel rooms will soon be available.
Are these figures in line with the recent boom in the hotel industry?
We have seen a huge investment at an incredible speed, much faster than the demand. Let me put it in perspective: If you double the number of rooms to have occupation margins that won't cause difficulties for either new or existing rooms, you should also then double the number of visitors. That isn't all that easy, because you need to fill the flights and earn the interest of travelers to make them want to travel to Panama. You need new places. This process takes much longer than just building a hotel.
Compared to the rest of the region, how are hotel investments in this country?
I would dare to say that, per capita, Panama has more hotel rooms than many cities in the U.S. I don't know any other place in Central America or South America that has as many hotels as Panama.
How will you manage to attract more tourism and hotel investment?
Right now we are focused mostly on attracting visitors, and we have quite a few strategies under discussion and being implemented with the public and private sectors.
We are studying possible new routes or countries where airlines can offer their services or send flights to Panama, offering more plane seats. We are also looking to establish new points of origin, particularly in Europe, and this is already being discussed.
Copa is also supporting this initiative to find new places of origin where tourism contact can be established.
I believe that private enterprise is participating in all of the tourism fairs and conventions across the world. It is important that the tourism sector unites in representing one voice, that of Panama.
The important thing is to go as a unit, not to try to sell just one hotel, even though we all have our individual economic interests. Once we favorably demonstrate the destination, everything else can be worked out.
What are your plans regarding the development of the new convention center?
The newly awarded contract to build the convention center is of utmost importance for the hotel industry, because it allows us to expand with the extremely important market of conferences and conventions. If we have the right conditions, we can bring in more than one conference or convention at a time; that is the formula we are going for.
A public-private organization is already beginning to be formed, whose sole function would be to promote and find sites for congresses and conventions in Panama.
We are putting as much of our effort as possible in this very opportune initiative.
Did the protests in Colón affect tourism? Do you have any numbers on the economic losses suffered?
Most definitely. It is very difficult to come up with statistics. We have tried to obtain specific data, but it's quite complicated to know how much was lost and if they were due to that situation.
Many tourists were said to have cancelled their reservations because of the violent situation. Do you know anything about that?
Yes, the situation resulted in canceled hotel reservations in the city over that period. There were also people who decided to postpone their trip and not come at that time, upon hearing the unpleasant international news.
Embassies released announcements to their citizens asking them to exercise caution, as well.
Two cruise ships decided not to stop at the Colón port, which represents a loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The situation had an immeasurable impact. These kinds of situations are never good for the country.
Can Panama still be considered the bridge of the world and the heart of the universe?
Certainly, and we are much more than that. That motto has always made me feel very proud. Although the phrase seems to have lost some of its validity, it remains strong in our hearts. In the end, our geographical situation rules, because it provides us with important international connectivity.
Today, Panama has a major telecommunications network that connects it with the entire world, along with the Colón Duty Free Zone, a cruise ship port, numerous flights and much more. If you think about it, we have a lot to offer. It's also note-worthy that our country faces no large-scale natural disasters.
What's your opinion of the new law on tourism?
It is a law that was born of a need to provide incentives to build tourism infrastructure in the country's interior provinces.
It has the same guidelines as the previous law, with the only difference being an expanded incentive for the country's interior. The phase in Panama is now in its final terms. The law stayed at the third debate, when they discussed that future construction projects should have a minimum investment of $8 million dollars.
The law also addresses the issue of apartment rentals. This issue is a bit complicated for the hotel industry because it represents unfair competition. Apartment buildings aren't meant to have infrastructure, nor to have staff available 24 hours a day, recreational areas or restaurants.
If you are going to rent an apartment by the day, you are entering the property without permission of the hotel. Under this concept, anyone could rent their apartment. What's more, these apartments are advertised as if they were a hotel.
All of this was compiled in this law. Of course, in the capital city we have an oversupply of hotels, while the number of visitors is growing. It isn't that the number of rooms has decreased, but its growth is not in tune with the supply and instead continues to skyrocket
We can not promote various tourism experiences in the country's interior provinces if we do not have places to lodge the visitors.