Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Backwater No More
Panama's Return From Obscurity

By David G. Young

Panama City, Panama, March 13, 2005 --  

For hundreds of years before the opening of the Panama Canal, this small country was a major crossroads of the world. Mule trains ran cartloads of plundered Incan gold across the narrow isthmus to Spanish galleons waiting at the Atlantic port. During the Gold Rush, steamship lines transferred California-bound passengers to an American-built railway running the short distance from the Atlantic to the Pacific before sailing on to San Francisco. The opening of the canal in 1914 was but the coronation of Panama as the transport hub of the world.

But even before the first ship passed through the canal, Panama's importance to international travelers had begun to wane. The completion of the transcontinental railroad across the United States in 1869 gave California-bound passengers a faster option than the steamship/railway transit through Panama. And when commercial airlines made ocean liners obsolete after World War II, Pacific-bound Europeans no longer had a need to go through Panama. By the late 20th century, the United States, with its enormous network of airline hubs, had eclipsed Panama to become the focus of travel through the Americas, with Panama and its canal serving little more than bulk freight.

So far had Panama slipped off the radar screen by the end of the 20th century that air travelers from the former colonial capital in Madrid had to travel through the United States just to get to Panama. The passenger transport backwater that Panama has become is evident at its small international airport south of the capital. More typical of a provincial American city's terminal than that of an international capital, the Tocumen Airport has traditionally offered flights only to regional destinations and major American airline hubs.

This stunning decline in status as a world crossroads may be about to change. In America's terrorism-inspired paranoia in its fourth year, the difficulty of traveling through US-based airline hubs has led non-American passengers to look for other options. Last summer, Spain's Iberia Airlines closed its Miami hub due to delays and expenses faced by international travelers.1 Panama-bound passengers had been forced to suffer three-hour stopovers in Miami2, and after America ended its "Transit Without Visa" program in 2003, travelers had to pay $100 to apply for a transit visa from the United States government.3

Since the closure of its Miami hub, Iberia has offered direct service from Europe to Central American capitals, including Panama City -- the first time in half a century that such a direct passenger route has been commonly available. But the vision of a new hub here or in another Central American capital will have to await a bigger airport -- something the Panamanian government has noted with a $12 million remodeling plan for Tocumen, as well as plans to create a government corporation to run the airport and pursue expansion.4

In all other respects, Panama is the perfect choice for an airline hub. With a modern infrastructure and sophisticated capital more similar to cities in East Asia than in Central America, Panama is positioned well to serve international passengers. This is especially true considering its liberal visa policies, international neutrality, and moderate attitude toward security. As the underrated country attracts ever more European and American tourists with its diverse culture, world-class sights, restaurants, and beaches, awareness is bound to grow that Panama is ready to fill the gap created by America's newfound insular attitude.

Transportation via mule, railroad, and canal have put Panama at the center of the map for half a millennium. In the years ahead, it may be air travel that does the same.

1. Miami International Airport, Press Release: Iberia Airlines Shifts Strategy to Central America, July 6, 2004

2. Fenix Panama Press Release, as posted March 2005

3. Miami International Airport Press Release, Ibid.

4. Fenix Panama Press Release, Ibid.