Although Panama is a small country, it has a variety of tropical islands, beaches, and wildlife that produced an estimated $2,600 million in 2010, according to the Tourism Authority of Panama (ATP). According to preliminary data from the ATP, international visitors have increased by 12.4% annually between January and August: from 1.1 million international arrivals in 2010 to 1,250,000 in 2011. By the end of 2011, international arrivals are contemplated to reach 2 million for the first time.
Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama is the main entrance for tourists, having received 1.16 million (or 67%) of international arrivals in 2010. Most of the tourists who arrived to Panama City through the Tocumen International Airport were from three countries: United States (252,837), Colombia (219,250), and Venezuela (131,608).
When the ATP presented its long-term development strategy, the Sustainable Development Master Plan 2007-20, in 2008, emphasized the need to improve institutional capacities at local and national levels in order to ensure the economic growth and that industry profits could be fairly distributed.
Moreover, the Panamanian government has explicitly identified the tourism (along with logistics, agriculture, and financial services) as one of the four pillars of growth in its five-year Economic Development Strategy, covering the period 2010-14.
Moreover, tourism development has been recognized by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as being able to significantly reduce poverty levels as a result of the sector’s natural ability of attracting foreign exchange and increasing employment. The latter is highly valued by the President Ricardo Martinelli Administration.
The benefits due to the growth of the sector is clearly reflected in the numbers of arrivals to the country, which doubled from 737,102 in 2001 to 1,730,000 in 2010 (figure expected to reach 2 million by 2011) and an employment growth of 49%, from 87,374 to 129,771 during the same period.
The overall contribution of tourism to GDP has also increased dramatically, from 5.6% in 2001 to approximately 9.5% in 2010, according to statistics from the ATP’s Tourism Reports in 2010. While these statistics present a breathtaking view of the growth of the tourism industry in Panama in the last decade, perhaps, the most telling statistic is the annual tourism revenues, amounting to nearly $662.7 million in 2001, but quadrupled to approximately $2,600 million in 2010. Investments also continued to arrive due to stable growth.
According to statistics from the National Tourism Registry, investments in tourist accommodation ascended to $142 million in 2010, of which the Province of Panama received 65% ($92.5 million), followed by Coclé with 25% ($34.9 million), Chiriquí with 5.6% ($8 million) and Herrera with 2.8% ($4 million).
The Panamanian government’s five-year economic plan has highlighted certain destinations such as those with the greatest potential for immediate impact on the industry growth: Pearl Islands, the Southern Coast of Farallon, and Panama City. These destinations were chosen for a short-term development, and investments were injected for various infrastructure projects in these places. Some short-term and long-term objectives for the development of tourism infrastructure include Colón, Boquete, Pedasí, and Santa Carolina.
Significant advances in the development of hotels have been made in the last decade. Hotels recorded an occupancy rate of 74%, according to ATP. During the year, 1.35 million night rooms were offered, a great improvement on the occupancy rate of 43% in 2001, when 990,520 night rooms were offered.
Further improve the efficiency of resources and infrastructure will be a key in developing the country's tourism industry. According to Enrique Pesantez, CEO and President of the local travel agency Pesantez Tours, Panama's future success in the tourism industry also depends on the hospitality offered by the Panamanian people and the continued growth of the Latin American market.
"Latin America has become our largest market, which will be maintained due to the economic boom that the region is experiencing, particularly in comparison with other regions," said Pesantez to the local press.
The tourism industry in Panama has shown a great improvement over the last decade and, up until now, the sector represents about 10% of the country’s GDP. The profitability of key markets, such as those in Latin America, and investments in infrastructure development and human resources will help ensure the continued success of the sector.
With the increment of international arrivals and a sector that has been recognized as a pillar of economic growth, Panama's tourism industry seems to be ready to embark on another decade of sustained growth.