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Geotourism in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 17 May 2010 14:28

From the humble setting of Maria Chefa’s dining room table, medicine Dan Britt and his girlfriend Reagan Merril, sickness two vacationing Manhattanites eating at this – a fantastically untouristy lunch spot in Panama City’s historic district – may not realize it or not, but they are part of an emerging group of geotourists: a relatively new industry term for travel that focuses on a destination’s unique culture and authenticity value.

"The enemy of geotourism is sameness,” Tourtellot says. “There's a great deal of creeping sameness in the world."


Along the same lines of the sustainable and eco-tourism brands that have come to characterize countries like Kenya and Costa Rica, geotourism is defined by the community, the integrity, and the educational or informative aspects offered by a particular destination: all of which create an experience that is richer than the sum of its parts.

Beside the New Yorkers sat six government officials from the nearby presidential palace in Casco Antiguo, sharing gossip as well as Senora Chefa’s highly prized ropa vieja recipe which sells, atop a plate of plantains, fresh tomato salad, beans, and rice, for $2.50 every week day to the public from 11am-2pm. Her personal living room, adorned with family photos, and a view of the sea, makes up the quintescential geotourism scene: an off-the-beaten-path tourism secret that visitors become enchanted to discover.  Read 60 Things to do in Panama Before You Die.

While historically, Panama’s tourism sector has clung to somewhat archaic tourism values combined with a bigger-means-better mantra, it is also nurturing, whether cognizant or not, several geotourist hotspots that are attracting experience-driven visitors looking for the new, the unique, and the unusual. Eating lunch in Senora Chifa’s living room for example, or spending a day with the Embera Indians or visiting the Achotines Tuna Laboratory in re-blossoming Pedasi.

The fact is, travelers want, more and more, to do things on vacation that they’re not going to experience anywhere else. Out are all-you-can-eat buffets and in are the fondas or sodas offering unusual local fare. Fading are the all-in-one itinerary packages whereas gaining steam are the do-it-yourself experiences that fully engulf the tourists of a destination.

This represents a shift in tourism, away from the features intended to instill familiarity or homeliness to visitors of a foreign land.  According to reports from the National Geographic Society and its Geotourism Charter, when it comes to international vacations, declining in popularity are the days of chain department store shopping and staged tourist events.

Now, more than ever before, it's easy to move quickly around the globe. While this can be a good thing, it also means destinations are "under various forms of assault," says Jonathan B. Tourtellot, the Society’s first director. "The enemy of geotourism is sameness,” he says. “There's a great deal of creeping sameness in the world." And in agreeance, several countries such as Guatemala, Honduras, Norway, and Romania have joined the charter in the past several years in an effort to preserve what makes them unique amidst an increasingly-accessible list of international destinations.

The fundamentals of geotourism stress not just authenticity, but also contributions to the local population. The NatGeo Society says that when destinations highlight the things that make them special, it not only draws more tourists, but it also helps the local community appreciate its own uniqueness. This, in turn, motivates them to preserve the cultural or natural resources that keep tourists coming. Go figure!

None of this is to say that the Marriott hotel or Playa Blanca Resort or Las Tinajas’ replica pollera shows that run like clockwork every night, are not fine in their own sort of way. But in Panama, it will be the truly authentic experiences – the weekend with Kunas in San Blas, the Ngobe tour in Bocas, the beers with locals on the beach in Pedasi – that the New Yorkers will guard closest. These are experiences they will take back to their peers, many of whom represent the cutting edge of geotourism travel, to show what Panama really meant to them.  

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