With all the focus on the Panama Canal and the massive infrastructure projects underway, tourism is often the forgotten element of Panama’s rapidly expanding economy. But Panama is drawing more and visitors from around the world, as it develops into a premier tourist destination.
The latest data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization shows the number of visitors to Panama grew by 22.4 percent in 2015, one the largest increases in the world. Panama ranked seventh in the world for growth, ahead of Thailand and behind Japan and Iceland. (Most of the other big gainers were countries like Paraguay, which topped the list with 97 percent growth, and Tajikistan, 94 percent, which don’t have a history of tourism.)
The growth of Panama tourism is even more impressive when compared to the rest of the region.
The Caribbean (7.4 percent) and Central America (7.1 percent) were the biggest gaining regions, but fell far behind Panama’s growth rate, according to the WTO data. Overall, international tourism rose by only 4.4 percent in 2015.
The data serves as a reminder that many people in the world are still discovering Panama. But that’s not an accident. The rapid expansion of flights to Panama City is connecting Panama to
countries around the world, in some cases for the first time. The beauty of the country, the affordability and unique culture are finding new audiences, and the numbers reflect that growth.
For investors, tourism is a strong leading indicator of the property market. More visitors translates as more exposure for the beauty and culture of Panama. Many of those tourists will return to rent and buy property. It’s a familiar story for many people who now call Panama home.
Not surprisingly, tourism is a major topic in Panama these days, with the business community and government actively discussing ways to better promote the country. There is a glut of hotel rooms on the market, as the big international companies race to build new hotels and position themselves for the fast-growing market. Tourists are taking advantage of low-priced hotel rooms, as a variety of new hotels compete for the visitors.
But demand is not the issue, as the WTO data illustrates. Costa Rica and other regional destinations are not growing at anywhere near as fast as Panama. Based on data reported earlier this year, Panama is ready to pass Costa Rica for annual visitors. Tourists are already spending more money in Panama than Costa Rica –in 2015 visitors spent more than $4.1 billion in Panama compared to $2.6 billion spent in Costa Rica, according to published reports.
The data suggests Costa Rica is the market of the past; Panama is the destination for the future.