Panama’s Gulf of Chiriqui is so wild and unspoiled it draws the most adventurous souls to its lush wilderness. Destinations such as Coiba National Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Parque Nacional Marino Golfo de Chiriqui have coaxed trailblazing nature-lovers and water-sport enthusiasts to the area for years, where they find “dozens of uninhabited islands surrounded by healthy coral formations and excellent conditions for surfing, diving, and fishing,” according to Fodor’s. These trend-setting backpackers are served by the area’s low-budget hotspots, including the notoriously eclectic Hotel Boca Brava in Boca Chica, known commonly as “Frank’s Place.”
Now that backpacking travel pioneers have laid the foundation, experts expect an influx of mainstream tourism to the emerging Panama market. Frommer’s calls the Gulf of Chiriqui “one of the fastest-changing regions in Panama. As retirees and expats move in by the thousands and ecotourism takes off, the landscape is changing at breakneck speed.” This phenomenon has already occurred in popular tourist destinations around the world, such as Costa Rica. Now a wildly popular travel destination, Costa Rica started as a backpacker paradise but rapidly began to attract mainstream travelers.
To stay ahead of the curve, developers must prepare for a new kind of customer, a concept Benjamin Loomis, President of Amble Resorts, understands well. Loomis is developing a Panama real estate project, The Resort at Isla Palenque, an eco-friendly, luxury resort and residences in the Gulf of Chiriqui. Loomis says, “The emergence of tourism destinations often follows a pattern similar to the gentrification of neighborhoods: first a few bohemians are attracted to unique experiences and low prices. As they flow in, the neighborhood gets better, or more tourism infrastructure gets built. Eventually this cycle creates conditions that appeal to more mainstream customers. Of course, prices have risen dramatically by that point. The key for developers and investors is to get in after the early intrepid souls have identified a place, but before the rest of the world knows about it.”
Not only is timing key to success, but understanding the new tourists’ needs is also crucial for developers. Loomis observes, “When I’m in Boca Chica, I see backpackers and surfers looking for cheap accommodations. What’s more interesting, though, is that I often see mainstream travelers in the area looking for high-end accommodations, but having to settle for what currently exists.” Loomis plans to fill this gap, leading the way for future developers by catering to the next generation of tourists who are searching for seclusion, nature, and adventure, but who also expect plush accommodations and high-end services.