Interview: Ernesto Orillac

How would you assess Panama’s rise from 56th to 37th place in the World Economic Forum’s “2013 Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report”?

ERNESTO ORILLAC: We have worked on three key pillars to raise competitiveness. Firstly, we have improved levels of connectivity, both domestically speaking and on the international stage. Panama is now connected to more than 70 cities in the Americas. We have also attracted new carriers and frequencies from Europe. Further to this, we want to connect Panama to the Middle East and Asia. The Panama Tourism Authority (Autoridad de Turismo de Panama, ATP) is currently conducting discussions with Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific and All Nippon Airways. Within Panama, new roads and bridges have been built in the provinces. This infrastructure, together with the four new international airports which have recently started operations, are leading to a development of business opportunities outside the capital. Brands such as Waldorf Astoria and Hard Rock are arriving, and both the Ritz-Carlton and the Hilton will be inaugurating their first hotels in Panama in 2014.

What kinds of infrastructure projects will be required on the Atlantic coast in order to open up further opportunities for investment?

ORILLAC: Our Caribbean coast, on the Atlantic, undoubtedly offers the best opportunities for investors. Panama, differently from other countries in the area, developed its Pacific coast before its Atlantic one, for reasons of connectivity, as the Pan American road extends along the Pacific coast.

We have started to develop this coast too by improving its connectivity with new roads and the new Colón Airport. New hotels and real estate development opportunities will be appearing as soon as the connectivity to those beaches is improved.

Our Caribbean coast lies outside the hurricane belt. The development of nautical tourism will be quick and easy but not only from the Atlantic side.

The Pacific side has underdeveloped areas such as the Las Perlas Archipelago where yacht and mega-yacht ports are needed along with second residences.

To what extent will the ATP be able to incentivise the increasing arrivals of low-cost airlines into Panama to boost visitor numbers?

ORILLAC: Panama is open to collaborating with low-cost carriers in a variety of ways, for example through the creation of a low-cost hub in Albrook International Airport. Indeed, we are always open to any proposals from potential investors in Panama.

What kind of plans do you have to develop new facilities for the meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) segment?

ORILLAC: Panama is taking the challenge of becoming a competitive MICE destination very seriously.

Indeed, the new Conventions Centre in Amador is one of our main tourism projects. It is expected to begin operations in 2014. The management tender for it will be opened in April 2014 and it will be by invitation only. There are very few companies in the world managing the biggest conventions centres.

The ATP is looking for those companies that each manage around 200 conventions centres worldwide.

Our idea is to invite those main players to the tender. We do not want to have the ATP managing it as happens now with Atlapa, the current small conventions centre. We do not have the required know-how or international projection.

A major challenge for Panama’s aspiration to attain recognition as a MICE destination is having the requisite number of hotel rooms to hold large-scale conventions – meaning more than 10,000 visitors.

We have organised conventions which have been attended by up to 5000 people but naturally, we would prefer a higher number. Another key challenge is having all the required certifications to attract the world’s most important conventions.