Cruising Latin America’s Pacific Coast

March 8th, 2013
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The recent announcement of a planned new cruise port on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal is very significant for the cruise ship industry. The Caribbean is and will remain a top cruise destination out of Miami but the Pacific coast of Latin America is almost virgin territory for the giant floating hotels.

Panama Cruise portPanama’s new Pacific cruise port will be at Amador right alongside the entry channel to the Canal and preliminary studies indicate that it will cost $30 million, including dredging an additional two meters for the ten meters required for the big ships. It appears that finding the money will not be a problem. Big cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Holland America and Princess have reportedly offered to invest – a sure indication of their interest in developing new routes and destinations for passengers who have seen and done it all in the Caribbean.

The benefits to the Panama tourist industry could be immense. The Panama Canal is already a prime attraction for cruises. About 200 cruise ships with 220,000 passengers cross the Canal during a season, but not many of them stop. The existing Amador cruise terminal has no berthing facilities so passengers must come ashore in launches.

The Panama Tourism Authority is, of course, hoping that the existence of a really good port facility on the Pacific will tempt one or more cruise lines to establish a home port there, bringing in hordes of passengers by air to board their ship. The model they are using is that of the successful Colon 2000 cruise port at the Caribbean entrance to the Canal, which is home port to Grandeur of the Seas, a ship of the Royal Caribbean line which operates a five-day cruise every week to Cartagena, Colombia and on to the ABC islands. It is also the home port for ships of the Spanish company Pulmantur. Ships from Colon 2000 are reportedly sailing with 90 percent cabin occupancy. Tourists from Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico are in the majority.

Panama’s neighbors are also excited at the prospect of the Amador Cruise Port. Cruises could go north up the coast of Central America as far as Mexico and south to Colombia, Ecuador and even further. As in the case of Colon 2000, it would attract large numbers of Latin American tourists who prefer a Panamanian port because of the difficulty of getting a U.S. visa.

Meanwhile, negotiations continue. The Panamanian government apparently is offering a 20 year concession for the operation of the port. An additional incentive is that the port can also serve as a fuelling stop (taking “bunkers” is the shipping industry term).

Balboa Yacht Club

The new cruise port is planned to be on the site of the existing Balboa Yacht Club, one of Panama’s revered institutions from the days of the old U.S. Canal Zone. Its original building burned down a couple of decades ago and the site was handed over for the building of a Country Inn hotel. The Yacht Club moved a step or two down the Causeway, first with just a bohio and later with a new building. We asked the present manager, David Cooper, how the peripatetic club would be affected by the cruise port.

He said that since 1982 the club has been fighting to get a land concession. It presently operates on 16 hectares but can operate on only a third of that, so he doesn’t think the port will affect the club significantly. In fact if they got a land concession, they could build a marina with a capacity for 170 vessels. At present they only have mooring for 122.

Visiting yachts are extremely good for the economy. Says Mr. Cooper: “Sailors and yachtsmen leave more money in the country than cruise passengers by buying goods and services. They also come for a long time, sometimes three or four years. They buy cars, land and property. They are important.”

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