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Tourism Builds Bridges with Panama

THE recent inaugural Air Costa Rica-Air Panama flight from San José to Bocas del Toro, Panama, represented more than a convenient new way for Costa Ricans and tourists to reach the popular Caribbean archipelago.


According to tourism-industry leaders from both countries, the new joint flights, as well as new flights to Bocas by Costa Rican company Nature Air, are part of a growing cooperative effort between Costa Rica and Panama.


Uncharacteristic chilly rain drummed on the roof of the El Limbo hotel on Isla Colón, home to the Bocas del Toro International Airport, but it didn’t dampen the spirits of the business leaders and tourism ministers beneath, celebrating the Jan. 6 flight with a typical Panamanian meal of fish, rice and beans.


OUR interest is integrating Costa Rica and Panama for a mutual benefit,” said Eduardo Stagg, general manager of Air Panama, echoing the words of Costa Rican Tourism Minister Rodrigo Castro and his Panamanian counterpart, Rubén Blades.


“These are two tourism products that complement each other in a significant way,” Castro told The Tico Times. “I’m sure (the new flights) will be very successful.” New cooperation between Panama and Costa Rica began at a 2004 meeting of the Central American Tourism Council, which Panama joined that year.


“We spoke of complementing each other – not of competition, which could weaken us,” Blades said during last week’s lunch, remembering that initial meeting. While such cooperation between Central American countries’ tourism industries has been on the lips of leaders for decades, Castro, a round-trip passenger on the inaugural flight, told The Tico Times that real efforts to promote the region jointly are a new development since the year 2000.


While the Tourism Council was formed in 1965, “I’d say that it’s been in the past five or six years that the council has really committed its efforts to… the integration (of Central America) as a multi-destination,” Castro said, waiting for the return flight to San José in Bocas’ small airport.


THE notion of a multi-destination is particularly important for long-distance visitors, such as Europeans, he said. Such visitors are particularly likely to take advantage of quick flights to nearby countries while visiting their primary destination.


“We have a similar strategy with Nicaragua, especially with Granada,” he said, mentioning Nature Air’s San José-Granada flight, which stops in the northwestern Costa Rican city of Liberia.


He said it’s important to choose joint destinations “according to the demand. (You can’t just) say, let’s integrate Town A with Town B.”


However, San José-Bocas traffic is “natural,” according to Castro, who added he hopes a stop in Costa Rica’s Caribbean city of Limón becomes a part of the airlines’ routes soon.


Additional plans for Panama-Costa Rica integration include a joint advertising campaign, Castro said.


BLADES – a Grammy-winning singer who returned to his native Panama to become Tourism Minister last year – said Panama is seeking to implement more one-hour flights so cruise-ship visitors travel around the country, sharing tourism’s wealth with less-visited areas.


“The tourists who come on cruises… spend 9-12 hours in the Panama Canal,” Blades told The Tico Times, emphasizing the need for flights that give those visitors “the choice to spend those hours in the boat, or visit the country. We need to design an air strategy that gives us that possibility.”


A cruise-ship dock in Bocas del Toro is another priority for his ministry, he said.


“There’s much to offer in Panama. What we need now is to create ways for people to get to these places,” he added.


The ministry is still crunching numbers to determine 2005’s tourist total, but Blades estimates it will be close to 1 million.


Costa Rica welcomed its 1.6-millionth visitor last year (TT,

Dec. 23, 2005).


AIR PANAMA, which has the largest domestic fleet in Panama, formed a partnership with newly formed Air Costa Rica last year and provides the Fokker-27 two-engine aircraft – some of the planes have a 40-passenger capacity, some 44 – for the San José-Bocas del Toro flights.


“It’s a union of forces between brothers,” said Douglas Díaz, general manager of Air Costa Rica. The enterprise is a sister company to Aero Viva and shares the same owners, Díaz and Carlos Vargas. Aero Viva, founded in 2001, offers charter helicopter flights in Costa Rica, while Air Costa Rica, formed last year, offers charter planes within the country as well as the regularly scheduled Panamanian routes, according to Karol Vargas of Air Costa Rica.


The new, thrice-weekly flights provide a one-hour alternative to the overland journey, which takes approximately 10 hours. Travelers by ground must take a bus from San José to the border town of Sixaola, cross the border on foot, and then take a taxi ride to the launch for boats to the island.


According to Alexi Huntley, Sales and Marketing Director of Nature Air, the

company is marketing their Bocas flights, which began Dec. 31, both to wholesale tour operators and individual travelers.


He added that foreigners living in Costa Rica or visiting it for long periods, who are required to leave the country every 90 days, are one target passenger group. Huntley said the success of the flights is inspiring Nature Air, whose flight out of the Southern Zone town of Puerto Jiménez suffered a mishap this week (see separate article), to consider adding a stop in Limón, the option mentioned by Castro. This could happen as soon as May, Huntley said.


THE Air Costa Rica-Air Panama flights leave Juan Santamaría International Airport at 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, arriving in Bocas del Toro at 1:25 p.m. Panama time (one hour ahead) after a stop in the Panamanian town of Davíd, where passengers can catch connecting flights to Panama City and other destinations. Return flights leave Bocas at 10:45 a.m. Panama time and arrive in San José at 10:35 a.m. Tickets are $105 one-way and $213 roundtrip for residents and foreigners alike. For more information, visit or call 290-8413.


Nature Air’s flights leave San José at 1 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, arriving in Bocas at 3:05 p.m. Panama time. The return flight leaves Bocas at 3:30, arriving in Costa Rica at 3:35. Tickets cost $100 one-way and $200 roundtrip. Visit for more information.



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