2020 Tourism in Panama
Why I think expat immigration is a prime tourism market for post COVID-19 recovery
In a time where the world is wondering what happens next… Panama is “Reinventing” what tourism will look like after the COVID-19 crisis, and they have some great ideas about developing a focus on sustainability and cultural tourism that are fantastic. If it’s not out of place, I want to propose a new genre of untapped tourism potential for Panama’s ATP… “RELOCATION TOURISM”.
I think visiting potential expats present a huge potential for Panama’s economic recovery, but it might take a moment to recognize why. Certainly, this is not the stereotypical tourist. However, even without a focused advertisement campaign at a national level, thousands of people come through Panama every year considering a future life here. This untapped market could be the uncut gem that the ATP has been searching for as they consider what comes next. And I know we would love to have the strength of the ATP to partner with.
What differentiates regular tourists from Relocation Tourists
When you think of tourists, you probably are thinking of beach-goers, surfers, culture and thrill seekers. Tourists are expanding their travel horizons, disconnecting from work and stress to make memories that will last a lifetime. They visit beaches, go to museums, volunteer, share photos on social media, wine, dine, dance, dive into your culture, get bad sunburns and then go home… back to reality.
The relocation tourist shares a lot of similarities to traditional tourists except these tourists are on a mission! Because they are on a mission, they are going to try to take in as much of the country as possible, spending less time relaxing and more time traveling around spending money in a greater variety of locations. Relocation tourists visit many of the same hotspots and restaurants as regular tourists, but tend to sacrifice beach and hammock time for house shopping or sitting at bars and restaurants hoping to chat with people who live in the area. They meet attorneys, speak to real estate developers, attend workshops and go on expensive tours. Also… some of them wind up spending their vacation time with me!
Sometimes I have to even encourage these people to stop, take a break, go to the beach. Because, let’s face it… most don’t actually ever move here. If the first visit is enough to whet their appetite, they usually come back two or even three times for weeks or months at a time before making a final decision to move.
Why is the Relocation Tourist an untapped market?
Many people here considering relocation would not have chosen Panama as a vacation destination if it was not for the dream of moving abroad and Panama’s reputation for having a great visa program (especially for retirees), a good infrastructure system, lower cost of living that Costa Rica, reliable healthcare, beautiful scenery and last but not least political, economic and physical safety. I speak from personal experience on this topic because our family would have been more likely to visit more popular vacation spots or a resort closer to home. It was only the desire to live abroad and raise our kids in a different environment that brought us to Panama.
Relocation Tourists have a larger spending capacity over time
Another reason why I think this great potential focus for the ATP is that the incoming expat has more money than the average young backpacker/surfer dude. What’s better than a tourists that is here spending Mom and Dad’s money to have a good time? How about Mom and Dad? Even if the relocation tourist is looking for a budget-friendly lifestyle, this is after all a vacation (sort of) so they are likely to splurge on better hotel accommodations. This genre may not help the hostels out as much, but I am sure some of the finer establishments would greatly appreciate their patronage and show them how nice Panama can be!
Relocation Tourism is Long-term
What happens to this tourist after they decide to permanently move here? Well, there’s a honeymoon phase for about six months after moving where the new expat is living in a state of euphoria, still checking out areas, and still at a high rate of expenditure. Only after buying a car, getting residency underway, establishing housing for rent, buying or even building a house, meeting all the new friends, and basically settling in to their “home”, these expats are basically long-term tourists. This is the transition phase between truly being a resident and someone that the ATP should look at as one of “their people”.
Servicing the Relocation Tourist at a Govt Level
Most advertisements about moving to Panama are funded by large companies like International Living, TV shows like HGTV’s International Househunters, various relocation tour providers and real estate providers like… well.. us! And yet, the private sector alone is bringing thousands of people here that benefit the tourism industry. Imagine if the government was to join forces with us to broaden our scope of reach!
Benefits of marketing to Relocation Tourists
First, if we as a private sector are responsible for bringing in thousands of people per year, imagine what could be accomplished with a little more fire power. Thanks to COVID-19 we and I am sure other companies have to scale back on our budgets, leaving a marketing deficit. Considering that it can take someone a year to actually arrive here after seeing advertisements, you can expect to see a dip in relocation tourists without intervention. By investing in this type of marketing, ATP can help the private sector curb the future loss of revenue.
Second, the government has statistics that would really help us target our message to people who are actually thinking about relocating. Math isn’t my favorite, but when it comes to marketing statistics and demographic trends can make the difference between spending a dollar and hitting the bulls-eye or spending a hundred dollars just to say I did. Rather than spamming someone’s facebook feed with irrelevant content, we could speak directly to people who are more likely to want to hear what Panama has to offer.
Third, by investing in relocation, the ATP can also become a partner help us provide filtered, factual information and funnel tourists to qualified professionals. This helps the government provide incentive to businesses that have licenses, training and oversight… as well as pay taxes. Theoretically, this also gives the relocation tourist a higher chance for a better experience and increases the likelihood that they will come back and tell friends good things. For example, once a relocation tourist was asking me for an AirBNB. She wound up staying in a nice looking home that had a big scorpion problem. Yikes! That’s not what you want on social media! It’s too bad she didn’t stay at the local hotel that is required to spray for scorpions. Needless to say, they did NOT relocate to Panama.
Competing with Costa Rica
When we were moving to Panama, many people we told about our plans were very surprised. They had heard about Costa Rica as the quintessential tropical dream life. Costa Rica has the nature, the vibe, but not the danger of Mexico. Costa Rica also has about twenty years on Panama as a tourist destination. I remember a presentation by a guy at our local real estate board meeting back in 2007 talking about the “cheap condos” and “pure vida” of Costa Rica.
You can’t buy beachfront in Costa Rica. Well, not mostly. In Panama you can, and this is a perk. Panama has a lot of raw, natural, non-commercialized beachfront to offer. But people just need to know about it. If the ATP would consider a marketing campaign or funding for videos, real estate, etc… you might have more people thinking that Panama is just as cool as Costa Rica and has a lower cost of living.
Flights. Flights, flights flights. The flights are just too expensive! You can fly to San Jose way less expensively than Tocumen. Also, I checked and you can get to several further destinations than Panama. This is a factor for relocation because you anticipate making frequent visits to your home country or inviting family. To truly compete with Costa Rica, flights need to be more competitive.
Ideas on how to seize the opportunity
They say… “never let a good crisis go to waste”. Panama is safer place to live than USA right now. It might not be a bad time to focus some investment to reach out to people who don’t feel safe. People are upset all over the world about 5G, increased taxes, uprisings… Unfortunately, because we are a small business we don’t have the budget to reach as far as we want. And, especially because of the closure of our industry, we can’t. Here are some ideas if I had more spending power and human resources…
- Use the 2020 Census data and other data sources to pinpoint where people are relocating from. (hey, now that I think of it, this is a great time for a census. We’re all stuck at home!)
- A series of higher budget videos that are tourism centered but with a relocation twist for various targets.
- A mini-series of different areas of the country not just in terms of things to do, but lifestyle.
- A professionally prepared relocation presentation that can be sold for use by licensed real estate brokers (including international licensed brokers), attorneys, and licensed relocation tour providers. This presentation could cover topics such as visa types, benefits of various areas, estate planning, real estate and rental laws, customs, insurance (home and health), basic step-by-step guides to moving.
- A link on your website to a page about relocation with a directory of approved businesses (such as ACOBIR members ). As well the ability for people to voice complaints and filter out sources.
- A grant application process to support small businesses who are already doing these things and may be able to continue through COVID-19 shut downs with a little boost.
- Create an ambassador program for residents who go back to their home country and can go to speak about Panama at events like realtor board meetings.
- Further pursue the Vive Pedasi initiative that we started last year. (Like the logo? That was my contribution to the project) This was the brain child of Lorena Watson at Oxford Pedasi. Vive Pedasi is a joint effort between ATP, local chamber of tourism, municipality, education, and real estate. The idea is “Panama is a great place to vacation… and a better place to LIVE”. Sadly, Oxford Pedasi didn’t work out, but the idea was a good one. We could really do something with this.
- An expedited process of vetting and allowing incoming relocation tourists who have either purchased property or are coming to move with a rental agreement in place.
- Establish and advertise a multilingual hotline for relocation tourists. This way they don’t have to rely entirely on social media groups which can be full of both good and bad advice.
- During COVID recovery, establish scheduled tour dates and allow particular flights for this purpose. The tour would be for one month with two weeks for quarantine in designated hotel. The ATP could chart the course of the tours, sending them to hotels that are ready to keep them safe and send them back home hopefully with a love of Panama whether they decide to move here or not.
Thanks for reading this… if you read it this far, thank you. That turned out pretty long and more of a proposal and appeal to ATP than anything else. But I have all this free time… so there you go. That’s what happens when I have free time.