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Panama Profile

While famous for its geopolitical and commercial importance, Panama is often overlooked as a tourist destination. Visitors will tell you that's a mistake.

Many of Panama's attractions are well-known. The Panama Canal stands out as an engineering marvel. Panama City makes its mark as Central America's most cosmopolitan city and its financial hub.

Far fewer travelers, however, realize that Panama has the largest rain forest in the Western Hemisphere outside of the Amazon Basin and is home to an incredible abundance of tropical wildlife. Panama offers visitors opportunities for fishing, snorkeling, beach-going, and bird-watching that are among the best in the Americas.

Panama got a relatively late start in the tourism industry. Until recently, the country's economy was focused on finance and trade. Moreover, political instability and links to international drug trafficking tarnished the country's reputation.

Panama Jaguar The 1990s, however, saw a concerted effort to raise Panama's profile in the travel market. The expansion of the cruise ship industry and the growth of eco-tourism have helped point the country's economy in a new direction. When the United States relinquished control of the Panama Canal in 1999, former U.S. military installations were pressed into service by hotel and tour operators.

Of course, the canal itself remains one of the country's top tourist attractions. Every year, hundreds of thousands of travelers make the eight-hour journey through the waterway. Many others take part in specially designed tours that explore the canal's locks, tug boats, and remarkable infrastructure. Tour operators, however, have branched out to include packages that emphasize eco-tourism, colonial history, and pre-Columbian native cultures.

At the same time, more conventional vacation resorts are gaining a foothold in Panama. With miles of white sandy beachfront on both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts, Panama is rapidly emerging as a leading Caribbean tourist destination. For the more adventurous, travel a few miles beyond the canal zone will take you into some of the densest, most remote jungle territory in the Americas.

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