Tourism is a major business in Panama, representing about 20% of GDP. With palm trees, beautiful beaches, spectacular fishing, cool mountains, incredible natural ecological features, an exciting and growing capital city, living Pre-Colombian Indigenous cultures, one of the most vibrant economies in Latin America, and the newly expanded, iconic Panama Canal, Panama continues to attract 2 million tourists a year to a country with less than 4 million inhabitants.
Cruise ships have always found the path between the oceans to be a popular destination, but many cruise ships just barrel through the Canal so people can check that off their bucket list without actually stopping and giving people time to explore all that Panama has to offer. With the expansion of Tocumen International Airport, “Hub of The Americas.” Panama would be an ideal place to home port cruise ships allowing people the opportunity to actually spend time in Panama before and after their cruise. Panama’s location gives it close proximity to popular cruise destinations on both oceans.
There have been two hangups that are preventing Panama from truly expanding and growing the cruise tourism market.
The first problem is Colon.
Colon is depressing, dirty, crime-ridden, with beautiful French buildings from the early French attempt to build a Canal that are dilapidated slums falling into ruin. When ships dock in Colon we tell people to either take a tour, stay on the ship, or remain in the immediate, somewhat depressing, dock area. It is simply not safe to walk around Colon outside the immediate port area.
The second problem is in the alternative place for ships to call, the other side of the Isthmus, on the Pacific side, the part of Panama City known as Amador.
Cruise lines like to call this “Fuerte Amador” since it once was the US military base known as Fort Amador. The problem here is that there is no place to dock a cruise ship so cruise passengers have to be tendered in. Conceivably cruise ships could dock at Balboa, but the ports make far more money off handling containers and cruise ships and cruise passengers would impede their operations. And it is impossible to homeport a ship where the only access is by tender.
The current President of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, has announced plans to address the plight of Colon, providing jobs, housing, and renovating the city in the manner which was successfully done in Casco Viejo, the old, historic colonial area of Panama City. If this succeeds Colon could become a major tourist attraction, similar to what Colombia accomplished in Cartagena.
There have been various proposals for a new cruise terminal on the Pacific side, one during the administration of the previous President Ricardo Martinelli [whom Panama is trying now to extradite from the US to face trial]. Apparently that contract, like many of the previous administration was subject to question and never happened. So now there is a new proposal which hopefully will actually happen.
The Panama Maritime Authority has now proposed a $30 million cruise terminal on Perico Island, one of the islands that make up the Amador Causeway in Panama City in a spot with beautiful views of Panama City and sheltered from the waves. Along with the expanded Tocumen International Airport this would allow ships to homeport in Panama. Now they need to wheel and deal to see who pays for what since countries usually look for cruise lines to front some of the cost, as was the case when Colon 2000 was built with Carnival as a partner. There is also talk that to encourage cruise ships the state would cover part of the toll for those vessels to transit the Canal. Reservations alone for a daylight transit run $55,000 to which you need to add the toll, about $135 per berth, crew or passenger, occupied or not, plus a whole list of additional fees.
The project would be located on a 74 acre site for the port and another 28 acres for port operations services, retail and entertainment.