Countries across Central America were among the first to restrict the flow of foreign visitors when Covid first struck. This was a difficult decision to make – tourism is a vital contributor to economic growth across the region. The industry also employs thousands of people from restaurants to hotels. Borders were closed and most commercial flights to the region were suspended. Could Costa Rica and Panama’s innovative approach to tourism revitalise the sector?
A senior executive at the Panamanian Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies explained “Costa Rica has a well-defined state policy that is committed to keeping the country as open as possible and is currently at the forefront of the resurgence of the tourism industry. In the case of Panama, the restrictions for travellers have been severe, but with a recently launched Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism and a tourism promotion fund, ‘Promtur’, we should see an uptick in our tourism sector.”
“The restrictions for travellers have been severe [in Panama], but with a recently launched Master Plan for Sustainable Tourism and a tourism promotion fund, ‘Promtur’, we should see an uptick in our tourism sector.”
Senior executive, Panamanian Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies
Innovation and imagination are important given that the pandemic slashed visitor numbers to the region by over 70% in 2020/21. Just as important will be the relaxation of entry protocols – health authorities across the region are studying whether entry restrictions can be relaxed and when. Panama established a plan several months ago regarding vaccines against Covid-19 to encourage tourists to visit the country and take advantage of getting vaccinated. By then, many people of the countries of the region already had a first and second vaccine. The results of the plan were not optimal. Currently, the plan can be redefined to offer tourists the opportunity to obtain the third vaccine in Panama and thus catalyse the arrival of travellers to the country.
The senior executive explained, “2022 will be challenging due to Covid-related uncertainties. Not just the emergence of new strains of the virus, but due to the ambivalence of the authorities in defining reasonable protocols that find a balance between health and economic growth.”
Last week in Panama City, the tourism ministers of countries in the region, including Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras, signed a declaration for the “transformation of tourism towards the future” with a view to establishing links between the countries and guide the industry towards a common strategy to guarantee the sustainability of tourism. The plan focuses on emphasising the importance of tourism as an axis of the economy and for the preservation of natural resources and cultural heritage.
A Senior executive of Panama’s chamber of tourism explained, “The vaccination plan and regional integration is being worked on, but plans are not concrete yet. Traditionally, countries in the region have rarely worked together to boost tourism, it’s been a national endeavour.”
“The vaccination plan and regional integration is being worked on, but plans are not concrete yet.”
Senior executive, Chamber of Tourism, Panama
Ultimately, talks of integration cannot mask glaring differences in tourism infrastructure nor differences in the political will and fiscal backing to introduce new initiatives. No surprise therefore that Costa Rica and Guatemala lead the region in hotel occupancy rates.