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The Destination is Green for Panama – Tourism for Everyone

For a country slightly smaller than the state of South Carolina, Panama boasts an impressive number of environmental firsts: Most diverse wildlife in Central America, largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere (outside of the Amazon Basin) and with 933 bird species, one of the world’s best bird watching destinations. While devoted birders are among the 1.6 million tourists who flock to Panama each year, the country has never positioned itself as a green destination, the way Costa Rica and Belize have. Until now. On Earth Day 2015, President Juan Carlos Varela Rodriguez, Minister of Environment Mirei Endara, Minister of Tourism Jesús Sierra Victoria  and General Director of the National Institute of Culture Mariana Núñez announced The Green Tourism Initiative, designed to integrate the protection of biodiversity and culture with tourism. “This was a formal and public recognition that tourism can belong to everyone,” remarked Sustainable Travel International’s newly appointed CEO Louise Twining‐Ward. “It can support local communities, protected areas and business.” While the country’s premiere tourist destination is the Panama Canal, this new plan is an attempt to change that. With its extensive wetlands, rain and cloud forests; UNESCO World Heritage sites; and indigenous peoples including the Guna and Ngöbe‐Buglé, the country has enormous potential to attract visitors based on its environmental and cultural merits. The announcement of The Green Tourism Initiative was delivered at the Rainforest Discovery Center, a model of what the country hopes to further develop and promote. Located on the outskirts of the Soberania National Park, the center features a 105‐foot (32‐meter)‐high observation tower and a sustainably built visitors center, where guests can observe 13 species of hummingbirds, native aquatic birds, monkeys, crocodiles, coatis and butterflies. Sustainable Travel International is working with a diverse team with representatives from the Tourism Authority of Panama, the Ministry of Environment and Ecotur on the new initiative. “The project focuses on the country’s 16 protected areas,” explains Twining‐Ward. “Our goal is to develop a shared vision for tourism and the protection of biodiversity using a participatory approach that involves communities living in and around the parks. We’ll help the team to develop a plan that takes into account the environmental, cultural and economic interests of all involved and help them to change the perception of Panama as a green tourism destination through marketing.” Among the key beneficiaries of our work in Panama will be local and indigenous communities, which until now have received little benefit from tourism. So whether it’s through a visitor legacy philanthropy fund, where tourists can donate directly to local community development and environmental projects or through the support of ecolodges, interpretive centers and other visitor attractions that focus on the country’s natural and cultural heritage, the goal — as Twining‐Ward says —is for tourism belong to everyone.
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