Panama to push natural attributes

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NEW YORK -- Panama's celebration of 100 years as an independent nation next year will coincide with its hosting of the Miss Universe Pageant, and both events will serve as a platform for promoting the country's natural beauty.

"We intend to capitalize on the worldwide media exposure that Panama will receive during the Miss Universe Pageant to showcase to millions of spectators many of our land's exciting visitor attractions, culture and traditions," said Liriola Pitti, general manager of the Panama Tourism Institute (IPAT).

"We expect the Panamanian government's investment of $9 million to highlight this event, as well as IPAT's multimillion-dollar advertising and promotion campaign, to contribute substantially to enhancing the image of Panama as a dynamic tourist destination."

According to Pitti, tourism is the country's fastest-growing economic asset, generating more annual revenue than the Panama Canal, and tourism promotion will focus on Panama as a varied destination that offers visitors beaches and rain forests, history and folklore, and top hotels and sports facilities.

U.S. tour operators appear to agree with Pitti that Panama is ripe for discovery.

Travel Impressions is set for a Jan. 1 launch of its first all-Panama tour programs -- six- to nine-night plans that range from adventures in the Chiriqui highlands or by the sea in Bocas del Toro to a nature/culture package covering the San Blas Islands and the canal zone rain forest.

Elyse Elkin, Travel Impressions product director for Latin America, developed this program and said she expects that "Panama has the potential to become a hot destination for the U.S. market."

Packages offer a choice of 18 first class and deluxe hotels and lodges among the various destinations; prices will depend on accommodations selected.

Panama is a different place from a decade ago, said Daniel Taramona, president of Miami-based Tara Tours, "for what used to sell was lively Panama City and the canal, while today the focus is changing to a combination of rain forest and resort attractions."

Taramona said Panama is an excellent destination for agents to present to clients: it's close, offers good prices and hotel facilities, and can be packaged easily for the elements clients expect in Central America.

The 107-room Gamboa Tropical Rainforest Resort overlooks the Chagres River. Tailored to the short-haul, budget client, Tara Tours designed a five-night Panama Rainforest Adventure that combines three nights at the Gamboa Tropical Rainforest Resort in the canal zone and two nights in Panama City at the new Holiday Inn & Suites. The cost is $691 per person, double, including air from Miami.

A second six-night package, priced from $754 per person, double, with air, focuses on Panama's Pacific beaches, with accommodations at the inclusive, 360-room Royal Decameron Playa Blanca.

The push to expand tourism development began in earnest when the U.S. administration of the Panama Canal ended at the start of the new millennium.

Now under Panamanian jurisdiction, cruise ships and smaller vessels continue to make the crossing, and projects for ecotourism development in the canal zone are focusing on the area's flora and fauna.

Other assets supporting the government's slogan that Panama is "more than just a canal" are island hideaways, fine beaches, great fishing and a rich Spanish colonial heritage.

But it is the canal that remains the country's economic lifeline, and the waterway zone is the target for hotel and resort development, such as the Gamboa Tropical Rainforest Resort, a deluxe property with 107 rooms overlooking the Chagres River.

Facilities include a marina, a spa and an aerial tram that offers birds-eye views of the jungle and ships transiting the canal.

Golf is available at the nearby 18-hole Summit Golf Club, and many guest activities are offered in cooperation with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which has been investigating Panama's forest ecosystems for 60 years.

Other projects in the zone include the Canopy Tower, built in a former radar tower and now a birdwatchers' hotel ringed by the jungles of Soberania National Park, and the new Country Inn and Suites Panama Canal, a $20 million resort with 273 rooms at the entrance to Panama City and near the Pacific coast.

At the other end of the canal, tourism priorities have focused on expanding the port of Colon, encouraging passengers aboard the more than 300 cruise ships that transit the canal yearly to stay longer on the Caribbean side.

In Colon, the biggest addition to the infrastructure is the 220-room Melia Panama Canal Hotel, Casino and Conference Center, bordering Lake Gatun and 10 minutes from the Colon Free Trade Zone.

Accommodations are being added in other parts of the country, such as the highlands of the Chiriqui province, where the Barcelo hotel group has opened the 19-room Barcelo Dos Rios Lodge. The property is 40 minutes from the city of David, as is another new Barcelo property, the 48-room Barcelo Las Olas, located seaside on La Barqueta beach.

For more information on Panama, call IPAT at (800) 231-0568 or visit www.ipat.gob.pa.

To book Travel Impressions, call (800) 284-0044 or visit the Web at www.travelimpressions.com; for more information on Tara Tours' packages, call (800) 327-0080 or visit www.taratours.com.

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