With Panama coming in at #1 on the New York Times’ list of 45 Places to Go in 2012 and a jump in press coverage featuring Nicaragua (including the recent FoxNews travel special Nicaragua: The Next Costa Rica?) it seems Costa Rica’s neighbors are vying for the tourism spotlight. However, they aren’t necessarily stealing the show. Many travel agencies who have caught on to this trend are offering trips to two or three countries at a time, using Costa Rica as the home base.
Part of the growing popularity of Nicaragua and Panama can be attributed to an increase in their tourism investment and promotion of public-private partnerships to create attractive offers for travelers. Panama’s tourism board IPAT sponsored a campaign with national airline COPA promoting several day layovers at no extra charge for passengers in transit. Nicaragua’s Tourism Institute (INTUR) recently signed a deal with Orbitz Worldwide to offer deals on flights to Nicaragua, as high flight prices have long served as an obstacle to attracting tourism to the country.
Thanks to these initiatives, Nicaragua saw $350 million in tourism dollars in 2011, and has already noticed a 12.8% increase in the first three months of 2012. According to the Panama Tourism Authority, 2 million tourists visited the country in 2011, and they expect 2.2 million for 2012, a 10% increase.
In terms of tourist attractions, both countries offer beautiful beaches for sun and surf tourism and various tropical ecosystems for wildlife watching and ecological tourism. However, Nicaragua has been working to improve transportation infrastructure to some of its more remote destinations like the Island of Ometepe, set inside one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, and San Juan, a tiny beach town on the Caribbean. The tourism board promotes themed itineraries around the country like the “Coffee Route” and “Volcano Route”.
In Panama, tourism investment continues to be focused around the metropolitan center of Panama City, which has long attracted visitors from all over Latin America for shopping. The country’s beach offerings are mainly within an hour from the city in the form of expansive all inclusive resorts. However, coastal communities in the provinces of Bocas del Toro, Chiriqui and increasingly the Azuero Peninsula offer cozier accommodations in oceanfront boutique hotels. Panama’s biggest claim to fame, the canal, is undergoing a ginormous facelift, so now is your last chance to see it in its original splendor.
For those who like to be on the forefront of what’s trending in travel, Nicaragua and Panama are where it’s at. The best way to get your feet wet is planning your vacation to Costa Rica with a few days spent over the border. As any negative impressions you may have had crumble away, the next time you may just be ready to tackle La Ruta de los Volcanes or a week of island hopping in Bocas del Toro and San Blas.