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We’re building it
– they will come
A dramatic addition to the vibrant development of Panama City is under way — a new convention center fronting the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal and scheduled to be finished next year. Panama’s current site for large congresses and events, the ATLAPA Convention Center, built in the late 1970s, is the best of its kind in Central America but showing its age and lacking space.
The new 16,500 square meters complex, costing $193.7 million, will garner much attention for the country for convention tourism.
Its location is superb, fronting the ocean between the Amador Causeway and Casco Antiguo, Panama’s Old City. Access from Tocumen airport will be a breeze, as it will have direct connection via the South Corridor, the Cinta Costera (the coastal beltway skirting the city round the bay) and the new sea bridge round Casco Antiguo, the Old Quarter.
Panama is already a prime destination for international congresses and conferences, with growth in this sub-sector of the tourism industry increasing by over 50% from 2011 to 2012. The new convention center will attract organizers of events, be they corporate, religious or for leisure.
Quite apart from the convention center, Panama also offers enormous potential for small or medium size meetings and conventions at hotels ranging from the l,468 room Hard Rock Hotel to remote hostelries on the beaches or in the mountains.
A huge factor in tapping the Latin American convention market is the current difficulty for Latin Americans to get a visa to the United States. Prior to 9/11, Miami was the destination of choice for Latin American conferences, conventions and events that require large meeting spaces and ample hotel rooms. But now, Panama is emerging as the place to gather, especially for its welcoming immigration policies. The country also offers a more central location, and less traveling time.
According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), Panama City is the safest capital in the Latin American region. This fact makes it easy to close deals on conventions, according to Juan Ramón Maduro, international event coordinator for the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP). The key decision makers and boards of directors are leaning more and more towards Panama as their event destination, he says.
Increase in the trend
Maduro reports that in 2012, some 126 congresses, conventions or other events of international stature took place in the country, a significant increase over the 66 held in the country during 2011. In 2012 international events accounted for over 120,000 room nights. Among the most notable events was the Herbalife conference in which 9,000 attendees participated. This year, a missionary group congress will bring even more people to the country.
Incentives to close the deal
To sweeten the deal for companies, organizations and groups the ATP offers special incentives including a welcome cocktail event, a folklore show offering the best of Panamanian cultural expressions or tours. These offers can result in significant savings. Panama City’s current site for major events, the ATLAPA Convention Center is now up for sale but until it goes under the hammer it is available for free to organizers of events who meet a minimum quota of participants.
Tax break for US companies
One of the most attractive aspects of the new Trade Promotion Agreement between Panama and the United States is that US companies can claim expenses incurred from holding an international event in Panama against their US tax returns. Holding an event in Panama as opposed to other destinations like Miami or Puerto Rico can already represent significant savings, and tax breaks can be a clincher.
In the big leagues now
Panama City is competing with the major players of the convention and congress tourism market, according to Juan Ramón Maduro. He cites cities like Sao Palo, San Juan, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Punta Cana, Cancun, Mexico City and Santiago de Chile.
The tourism atributes of Panama make the country extremely attractive for conferences, conventions and leisure events. In no other country in the world can visitors enjoy two oceans and such a wide range of beach, mountain and city destinations in such a small geographical area. Shopping is perhaps the most attractive feature, as Panama City’s vibrant circuit of malls offers the best prices and selection of merchandise in all of Latin America.
Panama has tour operating companies offering everything from partial transits of the Panama Canal to excursions to indigenous villages of the Guna Indians or the forest-dwelling Embera or Wounaan tribes.
Many companies have the equipment and the expertise to handdle large groups for tours in the city or to beaches and the “interior” of the country.