Alexis Zapata is one of the few businessmen in this country who knows the tourism business almost to the point of perfection.
With over 40 years of experience, he can now enjoy the fruits of his hard work and focus more on consulting work. He does so calmly, knowing that his most valuable product, Panama, has fulfilled the necessary requirements to be a fascinating destination, which makes it easy to sell.
It wasn't like this before, remembers the interviewee, and he recalls when he started out as the representative of the company Ticabus in Panama in the 1970s.
In that era Costa Rica was ahead of Panama in tourism, but he always dreamed that our country “would also become interesting”, and he worked for it.
After having gained ten years of experience in the business, he took on an adventure that was rare at that time, by launching a business that would transport tourists to different parts of the country.
That adventure would receive a name that is now well-known across the isthmus and throughout Latin America: Rainbow Travel.
In order to sell Panama amidst an unstable political situation, he had to travel a lot and sell lodging for the few hotels that were in the city.
Nobody wanted to come; quite the contrary, thousands of Panamanians did want to travel abroad, and that's how the business began working with outbound tourism.
The most popular destinations were Orlando in the U.S. and Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. At that time, Rainbow Travel was the only company that sent people to Miami.
Since the airline Copa had more limited coverage back then, people traveled mostly by land; as such, the range of the business covered all of Central America.
After the invasion, everything changed, giving the company the freedom to acquire more busses for transportation.
“We survived because we were a small company, but many others ended up closing shop. When the political situation ended with the invasion, we were positioned as one of the best businesses,” he stated.
Three years later, they began private flights with tourists from Spain who came to visit Contadora, and later also started a ferry service from Colón to Cartagena. Zapata was at the helm in both operations.
Together with Copa, they created packages with the slogan 'Panama for Free' so that passengers could spend one or two days in Panama with room and board included in the airfare, targeted at those traveling to Costa Rica.
Zapata did all this and much more, before Panama became a fashionable country to visit.
Today they simply create packages that are promoted by international travel agents, and now that operator does not have to seek out tourists, because the tourist comes looking to Panama first.
“The advantage of Panama is that it now sells itself,” said the interviewee, pointing out that things are easier than before.
In the period 2008-2009 there was a shortage of lodging. The owner of Rainbow Travel found it difficult to find accommodations for his clients, and so he decided to acquire a hotel that could meet that need, and at the same time fulfill one of his dreams.
This is the hotel Las Huacas, which will open its doors in February with a modern renovation because, as Zapata says, we are just beginning to see how Panama can shine now that it's in fashion.