Hotel & Motel Management / September 16, 1996
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- With less than four years to go before U.S. troops leave their country, Panamanians are wondering what to do with an estimated 100,000 acres of the former U.S. Canal Zone that will revert to Panama between now and Dec. 31, 1999 --the day the canal itself is supposed to be given back to Panama.
The future has already been decided for one important installation, however: later this year, Fort Espinar will become the site of the Latin American Hotel and Tourist Management College, with the opening of a studies center in the province of Colón.
Nicolas Ardito-Barletta, administrator-general of the Inter-Oceanic Regional Authority (ARI in Spanish), says the school will train 450 students from Central America and northern South America. Half of them will board at the school, while the other half will prcactice in hotels in Panama and nearby countries.
Ardito-Barletta told reporters that the campus would be located in the installation of the former School of the Americas, whose main building is to become a service hotel for Colón and ecotourism.
During a recent visit to Panama, Gotthard Frick, a representative of Tourist Consult Co., said his company would be in charge of planning, designing, managing and opening the hotel and tourist school, and that the International Hotel and Tourist Training Institute would prepare and conduct courses, as well as train teachers and hotel school managers.
In Switzerland, the institute manages a hotel management school with 300 students from over 40 countries. The school, whose courses are in English, awards a bachelor's degree in hospitality management, which takes three years to earn. The diploma as well as the institute itself are recognized worldwide.
Tourism, which generated $310 million last year, is critical to Panama's future, as the departure of 8,000 to 10,000 U.S. troops could mean a loss of some $350 million a year. A recent poll by La Prensa, Panama's leading newspaper, showed that 80% to 85% of those questioned would like the Americans to stay on well into the 21st century.
During the first three months of this year, tourist arrivals were up 6.4% over the same period last year. Pedro Campagnani, director of the Panamanian Tourism Institute, said a total of 118,797 foreigners visited Panama between January and March 1996. That number could skyrocket once Panama puts its master tourism plan into place. The plan, developed by the Organization of American States, calls for massive investment in hotels as well as generous tax breaks for companies that build resorts in designated areas.
While most of the big hotels proposed for Panama are going up in the capital, Panama City, the former Canal Zone abounds with tourist opportunities. Squeezed between the Atlantic and the Pacific, the narrow strip of land contains an estimated 4,850 buildings and military bases, many of which front the Panama Canal and sit on prime real-estate. One likely tourist lure is Gamboa, just 18 miles from Panama City and 20 miles from Colón.
"Gamboa is considered to be one of the richest biodiversity zones in the hemis-phere," says an ARI brochure. "The area is teeming with hundreds of species of birds and other wildlife, such as monkeys and manatees. It's an ideal location for the development of eco-tourism projects and a tourism village. One hotel site, to be opened in 1997, will offer tourists a unique travel experience in the Panamanian tropical forest."
For instance, Fort Amador -- which was used last year to house 8,600 Cuban refugees who have since been returned to Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba -- has a nine-hole golf course and spectacular views of the Panama Canal's Pacific entrance.
"Lots of pre-war houses there will be torn down to make room for hotels," said ARI consultant Carlos Mendoza. "Nothing's been built there since World War II."
Besides the golf course, Amador has a marina, three islands, the causeway that connects them, a small boat dock, a beach, a Smithsonian research center and numerous buildings. According to ARI, development plans call for the construction of hotels, a professional golf course, a shopping center, improved recreational facilities and a trolley system that would carry tourists out to the islands.