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More News - Good and Bad - From Panama

By doina — last modified Sep 21, 2005 02:11 PM

Published: 2005-09-21 14:11:53
Topics: Cruising Information
Countries: Panama

A report received by Noonsite from a Panama correspondant

The number one issue of local and international publications today, when it comes to Panama, is tourism. Many are promoting Panama as the number one destination for retirees, snowbirds and nature tourists. IPAT (Panama Tourism Ministry) is spending money to visit Spain and other European countries to promote tourism. The local Yachting community has been promoting Panama as the safest, friendliest and best reprovisioning area in the Caribbean area. However, the recent actions of the legal entities in Panama are having quite the opposite affect.

The La Prensa on 15 September ran an article outlining the new rules when it comes to Yachts in Panama. Over 1400 international yachts visit Panama every year. They are retirees, snowbirds, potential long-term tourists that have chosen Panama as a destination. Before retiring or taking off to travel they were engineers, doctors, realtors, lawyers, and other professionals. As a part of the requirements for this mode of travel, they know and follow the requirements for immigration, yacht in transit check-in procedures and special requirements of a given area. These long-term tourists spend from a week to several months in Panama and they come from all parts of the world. To Panama this means:

· Spending their money to re-provision their boats with food, fuel, equipment, and other goods and services.

· Making major repairs and taking care of routine maintenance before transiting the canal.

· Leaving their boats here for extended periods to enjoy Panama’s many natural wonders, as well as making international flights in and out of Panama.

· Spending an average of thousands of dollars each month in Panama and that money goes directly to Panamanian businesses for goods and services.

The new Panama policy, however, is to run them out, prevent them from stopping and fine them if they try. Even yachts just passing through in order to transit the canal have recently been hit with a new requirement by the Colon Port Captain (Autoridad Maritima de Panama or AMP), who has issued a letter stating that all yachts must use one of three ships agents resulting in additional unnecessary expenses.

The article in the paper says that yachts are not permitted to anchor in Panama waters and lists a number of authorized facilities in which yachts are allowed to stop but in reality the choices are very limited:

· Ft. Amador is a private marina with a limited number of slips and equally limited moorings. Almost all of these slips are owned and occupied by local yachts.

· Club de Yates de Balboa has moorings. However in recent weeks the ACP (Panama Canal Authority) has asked that the outer row of moorings be removed. This will further reduce the number of available moorings dislocating the local yachts and leaving little space for visiting yachts.

· Diablo Spinning Club is a dry storage area for trailered boats. This facility has no facilities for ocean going vessels or any boat that remains in the water.

· Cristobal (Panama Canal Yacht Club) on the Atlantic side has limited dock space. The expansion plans of the Panama Ports require the removal of the first two full docks thus eliminating about half of the slip space. Again this will result in both the displacement of local member boats and will further minimize the space for transiting yachts.

· Anchorage “F”, known as The Flats, continues to be an approved anchorage according to the ACP Port Captain. However, the AMP is categoric in saying yachts are not allowed to anchor anywhere in Panama waters and this would include the two designated Panama Canal anchorages.

· Marina del Miramar – is part of the hotel and private. The hotel will rent the slips with a hotel room but the rates are extremely high so as to discourage anyone from even asking. In addition, there is zero water in the marina area at low tide.

· Club de Yates y Pesca is again private and dry storage for small boats mostly. It shares the same water area as Marina del Miramar and is only accessible at high tide. There is not adequate water depth or space for visiting yachts.

· Club Nautico Caribe is a tiny place for a few boats in Colon but does not have sufficient space to make any difference.

· Pedro Miguel Boat Club – while it is world famous as the most friendly full service yacht club in Panama, in reality ACP has closed it. A few boats are actually in the Club but once they leave they cannot return and in fact the Club no longer is available to visiting yachts.

· Gamboa Resort is only accessible by small powerboats that can get under the eight-foot-railroad bridge and there is no provision for visiting yachts.

· Club de Yates de Gatun has been closed as a Yacht Club for many years as it is the current stopping place for commercial cruise ships. The cruise ships now come in to stop at Gatun, off load passengers, and turn around and go back out.

As you can see from the above the selection of actually available yacht club space for visiting or local yachts is tiny. Add to that the fact that the AMP is not allowing yachts to anchor anywhere in the Panama bay and you have a situation that makes it impossible for yachts to stop to even make arrangements to transit the canal, let alone reprovision, tour Panama or even handle emergencies.

Already the word has gone out over the extensive yacht cruising network to broadcast this untenable situation to those potential 1400 yachts that would normally visit Panama every cruising season. A number of years ago, when Venezuela became inhospitable to visiting yachts, the results were an incredible exodus of tourism business. Where one season over 2000 yachts visited Venezuela, making extensive repairs and refurbishings, reprovisioning and touring the country, the next season very few boats visited. The reason for the change in Venezuela was an arbitrary yacht tax. The following season the yachts all went to Trinidad, which has benefited with a huge yachting industry. Trinidad now boasts over 1500 yachts at any one time contributing to their tourism dollars. It is now the second largest industry in Trinidad.

Where we were confident that Panama would outshine Trinidad in the claims to yachting tourism, we no longer are. We know that once the harm has been done to a destination, as exampled by Venezuela, it takes several years for yachts to consider returning.

With the closure of Pedro Miguel Boat Club, Panama lost 50 slips as well as extensive dry storage for ocean class cruising yachts. The proposed losses at Cristobol (Panama Canal Yacht Club) of 45 slips and Balboa Yacht Club of 11 slips will immediately result in the loss of 106 slips and all of the anchorage areas except The Flats. At times the flats are chokingly uninhabitable because of the acrid smoke from the adjacent dump. The further elimination of any anchorage area will eliminate the possibility of yachts using Panama as a tourist destination! This is direct loss of tourism dollars to businesses catering to yachts and to tourism in general.

Visiting yachts represent long-term tourism dollars to Panama. For example, 200 yachts, each with at least of two persons aboard, over 365 days represent 146,000 tourist days per year. Panama businesses currently benefit from more than ten times this amount in yacht related expenditures. Every hotel, restaurant, grocery store, pharmacy, store of any kind in Panama, movie theater, taxi and tourism destination should be outraged at the elimination of this volume of business.

Currently the Government of Panama is making its rules in a vacuum. It has not queried the sector that handles yachts for information or assistance in promulgating regulations, rather the issuance of draconian orders and threats of removal of yachts, arrests and fines.

The Government of Panama has failed to identify the specific issues and to document those, rather they are reacting to occasional incidents and making rules without due consideration. What drives this course to tourism disaster? A question to be answered and most likely it will be answered with a marked economic down turn in yachting related incomes to the private sector.

If it were not for the fact that many yachts must travel to Panama annually to transit the Panama Canal, they would not come here at all. Under the current conditions they will do as we did years ago, transit the Canal visit the San Blas islands for a few weeks and leave. They will visit Colombia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico and Ecuador as they are countries that are actively courting international yachts as visitors.

Every morning yachts communicate through radio nets to pass on information about the local situation, bad and good, to the rest of the cruising community. The yachts that have to transit the Canal will continue to come but not stay and spend money. Many that normally cruise the Pacific and Caribbean coasts may just pass Panama by. If this current situation in Panama can be reversed quickly before it gets totally out of hand, word could get out equally fast to the cruising community for this cruising season. However, if it continues down the road now being traveled Panama will suffer irreparable damage.