by Cristiane Roget, correspondent AdAvenueGroup.com Paris/Florida
Just because something is moving forward, doesn’t necessarily mean it is ‘progress’. A recent whirlwind tour of Panama’s capital city and outer environs found this writer wanting to delve deeper into the country’s take on eco, golf and medical tourism. An in depth search at Los Angeles and South Florida bookstores, libraries and Amazon turned up “Lonely Planets, Understanding Panama-Survival Guide, 6th edition, 2013”.
Perusing past issues of Afar, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic and Destination there was not a mention or review on Panama, ‘nada’. Kuala Lumpur, Shenzhen and even Cartagena garnered copious amounts of editorial coverage. Editorial spotlights on Panama were M.I.A.
Taking a mental inventory of other high ranking tropical destinations that beat to an urban drum such as the Seychelles, Malaysia’s Sabah Island in the South China Sea, Brasil’s Buzios or even Panama’s closest neighbor, Costa Rica one may ask why a bustling, robust Boom Town in an oasis of untrammeled tropics is but a blip on the media’s ‘luxury travel’ radar?
With coasts on two oceans, coral-lined beaches, luxury resorts, roaring rivers and the richest biodiversity found anywhere; one sees simultaneously a country pursuing relentless expansion, a hub of global trade, a Swiss style global banking system underpinned by a flurry of private and governmental development.
Upon arriving Tucuman International Airport one might momentarily confuse this glass and steel Mecca of modernism as an accidental rerouting to Dubai. Air Emirates has laid claim to the world’s longest scheduled direct flight connecting Dubai with Panama City to commence in late 2016. A vision of luxury shops and elegant cafes catering to a myriad of domestic and international airlines; belies a misinformed perception of Central America as a sleepy regional fly over. In fact, Panama’s thirty nine airports serve as a central international hub and global artery, non parallel. “We firmly believe in the potential of Central America, and remain keen to link the Emirates network to the region,” confirms a company spokesperson.
Historically Panama, like developing nations everywhere placed greater emphasis on the expansion of the economy while paying little heed to the damage that irresponsible development had on the quality of life and the environment.
With an economy inextricably linked to its unique location dating back to the Spanish gold trade and pillaging in the 17th century, this tiny isthmus has been the focus of trade, natural resource extraction, and transcontinental economic exchange for centuries. All of this came at a cost; exacting a huge toll on nature.
Like other countries throughout the Americas, Panama faces serious environmental issues. Neo imperialism, nearsightedness, bottom line driven commerce and the ethic of ‘man over nature’ historically took precedence over conservation.
“As a result, sustainability is a relatively new term and has taken on the gloss of being cool and au courant, “ according to Gustavo Villa, Supervisor of Guest Services – Bristol Panama, a 5 star styled property in the heart of Panama’s ‘Wall Street’ district. Reminiscent of a languorous, member’s only British gentlemen’s club, Bristol is replete with a library and fine dining at Salsapuedes and for a late night repose the 8’ 58’ Lounge.
Where one hotel’s idea of ecotourism may be another hotel’s ploy to cash in on conscience. Some eco-sensitive retreats ask guests to avoid a daily change of sheets, insisting this will save the world.
“Others can’t seem to do enough to serve the three-tiered mission of responsible tourism: positive impact on the environment, on the local culture, and on the traveler”, to paraphrase writer David Hochman of Travel and Leisure.
Sustainability in Panama falls mostly within the realm of eco-tourism projects, field to table agriculture, grass roots programs, protection of natural preserves and indigenous cultures.
The country is making strides toward environmental protection as a survival imperative and a matter of national pride. Panama’s 76 protected areas are composed of marine parks, natural reserves and first growth forests.
Pride in green initiatives such as the Santa Maria Golf and Country Club (built over an unsightly land fill of excavated rubble) has been transformed into a chill-worthy, billion dollar residential development and golf course all within an alligator toss of downtown Panama City.
“The fact we won, ‘Excellent Service and Quality’ given by Air Transat Group in Toronto and ‘High Standard Holiday’s United Kingdom,’ is a testament, in part, to strides our moderately priced property has made in eco tourism”, confirms Wilson Ospina, Golf Professional at the Royal Decameron Golf Beach & Resorts Villas.
Flying in the face of opposing powerful special interests that exploit rather than preserve the country’s natural resources, the people of Panama have embraced a long view in protecting the environment over immediate gratification.
“As far as water, energy, and human security are concerned; Panama’s leaders and citizens alike are embracing the dual purpose to sustain a strong economy and mitigate the effects of climate change. “It is crucial for Panama to protect natural ecosystems and create sustainable economic alternatives for stakeholders” according to Marcelo Joffe, General Manager, Vista Mar Golf and Beach Resort.
One would be remiss to make mention of world renowned French Chef Pascal Finet, brought the sea to the banquet with a saffron scented Spanish paella and a medley of baby greens. The consensus among the dozen writers on tour was “the best dish served while in Panama”.
On a fast track to become the 21st century ‘Gateway to the America’s’ playing out against a backdrop of moderation and environmental protectionism;
Panama is perfectly positioned to become the Western Hemisphere’s most visited and most vital cross roads for commerce and as a world leader in environmental stewardship.