Panama tourism

Panama is often touted as an undiscovered gem on the tourism side of things, but now the travelers’ interest in the country may finally be catching up to the business and expat interest.

Once again, the country experienced a record year for tourism, with a year-over-year increase of 10.7 percent for 2015. This made Panama one of the fastest-growing markets in the world last year, welcoming 2.5 million tourists. This was barely below its more famous neighbor, Costa Rica, which welcomed 2.6 million. Naturally the country wants to pass them and take the first place prize for Central America in 2016.

The destination is far from unknown for retirees seeking a better life for half the price and frequently comes up in the top spot as the best country for retirees, but the expanded air connections from Copa Airlines and some smart visitor incentives like stopovers and free tourist medical insurance are bringing in new first-time visitors. Plus the word is getting out on the great medical tourism options here in great hospitals.

The one negative in the tourism numbers was a low occupancy level at Panama hotels because of overbuilding. In simple terms, there are far more rooms than visitors at the moment and it’s going to take a while for the market to catch up. That’s only bad news for the industry of course: if you’re a traveler, you’ll find enticing rates at some fine luxury hotels. Follow that link for our detailed reviews of the best of the best in the capital city and beyond.

Waldorf Astoria Panama

In addition, it may be shaking off its past reputation as an opaque banking haven beloved by drug smugglers and tax dodgers. It was recently taken off the gray list from the Global Financial Action Task Force, which monitors money laundering and a lack of transparency in banking systems. As Jeff Barton from Punta Pacifica Realty points out, this should be good news for those buying property. “For investors, this is another indication that Panama is reaching international standards for security and transparency.”

What’s going on with that canal expansion? The $5 billion expansion to allow container ships  through was scheduled to open in April but now it’s looking more like June. It’s supposedly 96% finished and the contractor is doing test runs now, but more reinforcements have to go up in sections where they have found leaks. Still, massive projects like this often fall years behind, so overall this one has gone rather smoothly and this summer the big ships should start moving through, saving them weeks of travel time.