PANAMA – Special to NNL – We stand on the brink of a period of strong economic growth that will be fueled in part by a shift to a more sustainable use of our natural resources. The international market for eco-tourism is rapidly expanding and seeking new destinations, particularly in the area of sportfishing. With proper planning and execution, Panama can and should establish itself as the regional leader in this industry. But there is much work to be done.
Previous studies of sportfishing tourism from The Billfish Foundation, a non-profit organization and leader in worldwide marine conservation programs and their economic benefits, have revealed that sportfishing in Baja California Sur – a single state in Mexico – generated over $630 million in 2008, accounting for 35,000 jobs and over $1.25 billion in revenues overall. In neighboring Costa Rica, sportfishing dollars added nearly $600 million to its gross domestic product and created 63,000 jobs in 2009.
Incredibly, these figures are based primarily on tourists from just the United States and Canada.
In the United States alone, approximately 7.5 million people travel outside their country to fish. Research from The Billfish Foundation shows that only 1% of these tourists currently travel to Panama. To remain competitive in Latin America, Panama must dramatically increase this number and create further economic opportunities for our nation.
Fortunately, Panama is unique to the region in many ways that provide an advantage. First and foremost, we are easy to travel to and we have good infrastructure. In addition, our dollarized economy is more stable and attractive to foreign investment. But most of all, we have better fishing.
To capitalize on the economic benefits that follow strong eco-tourism, we must have abundant fish and wildlife. If our nation’s valuable natural resources are available and accessible, tourists from our hemisphere—and around the world—will no doubt place Panama at the top of their list of future travel destinations.
Recent market research shows that a tourist destination that has reduced over-fishing, and put in place sound conservation regulations on sportfishing, increases the probability that a traveling angler will choose that destination by over 80%.
Panama must find new ways to manage our natural resources and continue to harvest safe and healthy seafood. But, we must also drastically increase the amount of low-impact tourism attracted to abundant wildlife. If properly managed, these changes will create new, lasting jobs that are well paying. A robust and responsible sportfishing industry is in Panama’s long-term interest.
It has been scientifically proven that being conscientious stewards of fisheries through conservation programs like those advocated by the sportfishing industry actually increase the quality and quantity of commercial harvests over time. Yet today, many remain unaware of this benefit.
Under President Ricardo Martinelli’s leadership, we aim to enact vital policies that preserve our precious resources while creating opportunities for economic prosperity. We are prepared to meet this challenge.
Earlier this month (MARCH), SENACYT, Panama’s office of Science, Innovation and Technology, began an in-depth study coordinated by local economists and fishery scientists from The Billfish Foundation. This collective effort will perform socio-economic research targeted to estimate the level of sportfishing revenues currently coming into Panama, identify opportunities for expanding to new destinations within our country, and provide essential scientific advice on how to increase our ability to effectively manage our precious aquatic resources.
This study will assist us in developing innovative, scientifically proven management plans that will allow us to properly catalogue our marine species. These findings will also help Panama create programs to determine safe levels of recreational and commercial harvests and better understand the spawning seasons of our marine species. By eliminating the guesswork in best management practices, it will give us, and future administrations, a rich body of research to take the necessary actions to protect our resources.
We have long known how blessed we are to have the resources we do in our beautiful little country. We also know that if we do not take proper care of those resources, we will fall behind neighboring nations competing hard for foreign dollars.
Panama must seize every opportunity to realize our prosperity and promise and make the difficult choices that may lie ahead to enact policies for the greater good. Our people—and our destiny—demand it of us.
Dr. Berrocal is Panama’s National Secretary of SENACYT, and Mr. Shamah is the Minister of Tourism