Panama, for all its charms, is perhaps best known to U.S. travelers as a place to pass through on their way to somewhere else, whether via its famed, century-old canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans or the much newer Tocumen Airport, now Central America's busiest transit air hub.
The importance of Panama as a transportation nexus has naturally led to the evolution of Panama City, its capital, into a business-travel destination in its own right. But until relatively recently the country hadn't really captured the imagination of North American leisure travelers quite in the manner of, say, neighboring Costa Rica.
Panamanian tourism authorities have been working to change that, and U.S. tour operators, travel agents and vacationers, along with international resort brands, are looking at the destination anew.
For example, leisure arrivals in June increased by 17.3%, according to the tourism authority, with most of the visits -- numbering 143,997 -- originating in the States. Many U.S. visitors are heading to new resort properties, such as the 1,000-acre, 120-unit Bristol Buenaventura in Rio Hato, springing up on Panama's pristine Pacific coastline, within easy reach of the capital.
"Panama City is a booming destination, with amazing beach destinations a short drive out of the city," said Kurt Englund, Bristol general manager. "This tropical destination is largely untapped for U.S. travelers."
The Bristol Buenaventura is hoping to spur U.S. bookings with Low Season Promotion rates from $215 through Oct. 31.
Hotel brands more familiar to Americans are getting in on the act, too. The 611-room Westin Playa Bonita Panama, a 20-minute drive from Panama City, will open in October. And Marriott will operate the 180-room Casamar Marriott Panama, 55 miles west of the capital, opening in 2013.
In May, the Panama Tourism Authority partnered with national flag carrier Copa Airlines, which flies nonstop from six U.S. gateways to its "Hub of the Americas" at Tocumen, to launch a "Visit Panama Free" campaign. Copa passengers can now include a stopover stay in Panama at no additional charge when connecting through Tocumen.
"We expect this initiative to add greatly to ... existing efforts to position the country as a tourist destination," said Marco Ocando, Copa's director of marketing.
According to Ernesto Orillac, adviser to Minister of Tourism Salomon Shamah, the country hopes through such initiatives to grow annual leisure arrivals to 2 million.
"About 5.5 million travelers pass through Tocumen a year, but only about 1.5 million end up in Panama City," he said. "We want to present them with the opportunity to stay here a few days or even for a week."
Orillac said Panama is negotiating with U.S. operators such as Apple Vacations, Funjet Vacations and Travel Impressions to "increase current operations and negotiate future charters into Panama City and other [areas], especially along the Pacific coast," where there are now some 2,500 beds available, with more resort and even regional airport construction planned.
Collette Vacations, which entered the Panama market last December with two tours, has seen such strong demand that it is launching a third itinerary in June, the eight-day Panama Family Adventure, priced from $1,799 for adults and $1,199 for children, land only.
Allison Flint, product manager for South America, said Panama is already Collette's second most popular destination in the region. "That's very impressive for a first-year product," she said. "It's been great to see the interest in Panama, beyond the canal, grow."
Randie Rosenberg, an independent travel consultant and Panama specialist with Brownell Travel in Birmingham, Ala., concurred. "It's a great destination ... and has a lot to offer," she said. "The big draw has always been the canal, but people are beginning to get that it also has pretty beaches, a lot of English-speaking people and a similar abundance of flora and fauna to Costa Rica, and yet it's still very different from other Central American countries because Panama City itself is so cosmopolitan."
Go to www.visitpanama.com.