What Is Sustainable Tourism? In Panama, It Depends Who You Ask

What Is Sustainable Tourism? In Panama, It Depends Who You Ask

Veteran guide Rich Cahill on the Panama Canal. Panamanians have adopted a flexible definition of … [+] sustainability as they grapple with an influx of tourists.

Christopher Elliott

If you ask Rich Cahill to define sustainable tourism, he’ll tell you about the wilderness next to the Panama Canal where you can find ocelots, howler monkeys, and three-toed sloths. It’s about explaining to visitors that nature is both fragile and resilient — a contradiction that’s on full display in these lush Central American rainforests.

“People think they know sustainability,” says Cahill, who runs Ancon Expeditions, a Panamanian tour operator. “But they’re not thinking big enough.”

Sustainable means something different to David Kianni, general manager of the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo. To him, it’s about being a responsible corporate citizen — no single-use plastics, and having an active conservation initiative — and creating a mentorship program that supports native culture.

Just down a cobblestone street in Old Town Panama City, you’ll find yet another definition of sustainability at the just-opened Amarla Casco Viejo, a boutique hotel. For general manager María Antonieta Ramírez, it’s about following all the best practices of conservation and promoting artists like Phoebe Montague Warr, whose riveting images of Panama’s biodiversity are on display in the guest rooms.

Sustainability in tourism is a broad topic that covers environmental protection, supporting local communities and cultural preservation. But what does sustainability really mean?

I’ll be asking that question as I travel through the Caribbean, a part of the world that has aggressively pursued a reputation for sustainability in tourism. But how sustainable is the Caribbean when compared to other places? How can you tell if a destination is really sustainable? And ultimately, is sustainability worth it, not just to the visitor and the business, but also to the affected communities?

For a benchmark, I decided to start in Panama, perhaps one of the sustainability pioneers. Guides like Cahill were leading tourists through tropical rainforests decades ago, before ecotourism became a household word. Panama also has a colorful history as an adventure destination, featuring dictators, military invasions and plenty of intrigue. Plus, it’s an airline hub that connects to many Caribbean islands, as well as other destinations in the Americas and Europe.

What is sustainable tourism?

Experts will tell you that, on its broadest level, sustainable tourism is about reducing the negative environmental, social, and economic consequences of travel. But it’s also about helping local communities and preserving natural and cultural resources for people who live in the affected areas.

Sustainability means that you can keep coming back to the place again and again without worrying about it being depleted or destroyed. And here are three main ways a destination can pursue a sustainability goal:

Reducing environmental damage

Sustainable tourism tries to lower carbon emissions, reduce waste and conserve resources. Hotel recycling programs and carbon neutrality commitments by airlines fall under this category.

Helping local communities

Sustainability is also about empowering local communities through small business mentorship programs and sourcing local products. When your boutique hotel offers a locally made drink or soap product, chances are it’s part of a sustainability effort.

Preserving culture

The final aspect of sustainable tourism is about helping people maintain local cultures and traditions. This may include promoting a range of tourist-related activities that allows visitors to appreciate the ways of the indigenous society.

These three core sustainability principles sound simple enough. But when it comes down to it, the definition is like sand in your fingers. It’s elusive. It sounds promotional, and at times gimmicky. And ultimately, isn’t sustainability something airlines, hotels and tour operators should have been doing all along?

A cargo ship passes through the Panama Canal near Gatun Lake.

Christopher Elliott

In the Panama Canal, a practical definition of sustainability

The Panama Canal is an unlikely ecotourism destination. Dredging a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific disrupted fragile ecosystems and led to the extinction of several species, notably the golden frog. But the security concerns also preserved fragile rainforest, and after gaining ownership of the canal from the U.S., Panama created Soberania National Park to protect the area surrounding the canal.

Today, the national park is home to some of the most spectacular birdwatching in Central America. You can see everything from crested guans and toucan to heron and antbirds hawks in the forests. These animals have adapted to the canal. It isn’t uncommon to see a monkey or jaguar swimming across the canal during a boat tour.

Cahill, an American who grew up in Panama, remembers when the U.S. still administered the canal and the entire area was closed off to most people. Ironically, he says the military bases and travel restrictions saved the area from development and made it one of the leading ecotourism attractions in Latin America.

And then the visitors came.

“Growth is a tough thing without good planning,” he says. “It’s easy to forget that.”

But growth is very much on everyone’s mind in Panama. That’s because the country has seen an influx in visitors as more cruise ships have come through the Panama Canal. A new cruise terminal has opened just outside Panama City, straining the city’s limited tourism infrastructure.

“When you get all these cruise ships coming in, you can see the consequences of poor planning,” adds Cahill.

So that’s one perspective. Panama wasn’t meant to be an ecotourism destination, but it became one despite the serious consequences of a canal being dug through it — maybe even because of it. And now it is struggling with its own success. More people want to see Panama, to transit through the canal, to go birdwatching and to experience the rainforests that maybe would have been decimated if it hadn’t been for the canal.

The canal should have destroyed the environment, but the rainforests are resilient and the enormous public works project ended up protecting the environment, in a way. It’s a curious contradiction.

The 2023 class of graduates from Copa’s Aeronautical Technicians Academy.

ls motion graphic

Can an airline be sustainable?

Back in Casco Viejo, Panama’s old town, there are more people wrestling with the same questions: What, exactly, does it mean to be sustainable?

For example, what if you’re an airline? Air carriers are constantly getting themselves into trouble for claiming to be green. In the last six months, several governments have handed out fines to airlines who made bold but ultimately false claims about their carbon offset programs. The smart airlines are keeping a low profile — and making a difference where they can.

Katherine Katsudas, a senior manager at Copa Airlines, is pondering sustainability over lunch at Kaandela, the Amarla Casco Viejo’s restaurant. For the Panamanian carrier, sustainability is about giving back to the community by subsidizing its low-key Aeronautical Technicians Academy. The airline quietly opened the training facility in Tocumen, just outside Panama City, a few years ago. It offers young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds full scholarships to train as aircraft mechanics.

“And they have a guaranteed job waiting for them when they graduate,” she says.

The program has benefited everyone by graduating 132 maintenance technicians, she adds. It removed one of the major obstacles to higher learning for the young people enrolled in the program, which is that they can’t afford tuition and end up missing classes because of financial or family obligations. The 86 students currently enrolled in the program receive a stipend for living expenses.

It also gives people from an underprivileged community, many of whom live just a stone’s throw from the airport, a chance to have a stake in one of Panama’s most successful businesses.

Few travelers stop to consider the aircraft mechanic who maintains their plane, or the low-income neighborhood next to the airport when they land in Panama City. But it is all part of an economic ecosystem that must also be sustainable in order for all this to work, according to Katsudas.

Being a good corporate citizen is something Copa was doing long before sustainability was a buzzword. But now that someone has given it a name, the airline has fully embraced it.

María Antonieta Ramírez, general manager of the Amarla Casco Viejo, shows off the photographs of … [+] Phoebe Montague Warr.

Amarla Casco Viejo

A boutique hotel that supports sustainability

Upstairs in the Amarla’s guest rooms, you can see sustainability efforts on display. Each room in this meticulously restored 120-year-old boutique property is completely unique, and that extends to the framed photos on the walls, many of which are for sale. The images depict indigenous people in the Panamanian rainforests. The photos are colorful and visually arresting.

Ramírez, the hotel’s general manager, explains that the photographer’s works are intended to support the heritage of different indigenous communities.

“The portrait capture the essence and diversity of its people — breathtaking landscapes, nature, fauna and the enduring spirit of its indigenous communities,” she explains.

She says 30% of profits go back to indigenous individuals in the picture, the community where the image was shot, or to their chosen charity.

This type of sustainability is becoming more common in Latin American luxury hotels, where guests are looking for more than a written commitment to sustainability. They want something tangible, and maybe even something they can take home with them to remind them of their adventure.

Gunayala coconut oil retails for $5 a bottle. In the first year of production, the oil produced … [+] $4,300 in revenue for the indigenous community.


Building sustainability through coconut oil

The Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo has a fascinating backstory. The building was a military club that was almost completely leveled by U.S. forces during the 1989 Panama invasion. According to several people I spoke with, the Americans believed Manuel Noriega was hiding there. He wasn’t.

Just before the pandemic, the hotel was rebuilt as a luxury urban resort. Today, visitors can relax at its elegant Mayda bar overlooking the canal and watch the cruise ships float by.

The Sofitel’s sustainability program feels like a combination of the approaches taken by Copa and Amarla. It’s a mentorship initiative that develops young indigenous entrepreneurs in collaboration with the Forest Stewardship Council Indigenous Foundation, an organization that supports indigenous people worldwide. The Sofitel marketing team is working with the Guna Ogob community to create a sustainable business selling coconut oil.

“We’ve been guiding the young talent step by step as to how to go from setting up the business to marketing and selling the coconut oil, as well as managing its finances and cash flow,” explains Kianni, the hotel’s general manager. “Our mentorship Initiative has been developed to help the indigenous community to further develop their business model and gain revenues to be used by the community.”

Kianni says Guna Ogob Coconut Oil is about to become an official business, through its mentorship program will be supported by the hotel. But he’s gone a step further, and is in contact with Sofitel corporate to use this model for other hotels within the brand, which will support other indigenous communities.

David Kianni, general manager of the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, on the hotel’s rooftop bar.

Christopher Elliott

Why bother being sustainable?

I asked Kianni why he was spending valuable resources on developing a coconut oil business at a time when the Panamanian lodging industry is still struggling to recover from the aftereffects of the pandemic. He said people expect more than green certifications and recycling programs.

“They want to make a real difference,” he told me.

That may be the biggest takeaway from the Panamanian sustainability experience. Whether you’re guiding travelers through the locks of the Panama Canal, training underprivileged people to become aircraft mechanics, or selling photos of indigenous people or marketing coconut oil, people are tired of the talk. They want action — not words.

Simply saying that you are sustainable is no longer enough in the travel industry. You have to think big.

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