by Mark Scheinbaum
March 10, 2013
WHY NO PANAMA HATS AT AMERICA'S TOP TRAVEL SHOW?
WASHINGTON, March 10, 2013 -- Wouldn't you like to know how to view the historic and dramatic expansion of the Panama Canal? Or the scuba adventures in Portobelo's crystal clear waters? Perhaps you don't know about the spanking new skyline, nightlife, and world class restaurants of Panama City?
Don't worry, you were not bothered with knowledge of any of these things at the renowned and gigantic Washington, D.C., Travel and Adventure Show this weekend, because the brains behind Panama's government tourist ministry and individual tour operators did not see the need to exhibit at the show.
A professional, slick, informative,entertaining, and gastronomical array of tourism and food exhibitors from Aruba to the Zulu Nyala Game Reserve were there. Tens of thousands of potential travelers, travel professionals, reporters, and business leaders were there, but not Panama.
Oh, one might note that the big international TV and Travel stars Rick Steves, Andrew Zimmern, and Andrew Frommer were not only generous with their time as speakers twice each day, but mingled with visitors and shared informal stories and tips in a value-added event where admission with online tickets was just ten dollars, and kids were free.
There was rock climbing and actual SCUBA lessons in huge indoor tanks. There were classes in fly fishing, and an Antartic interactive adventure including penguins for the kids. Tens of thousands of visitors crowded the seven-square block Washington Convention Center for one of the largest travel expos in the world, but my personal favorite venue of Panama was absent.
Don't think Costa Rica - always claiming itself as the premier eco-friendly tourist destination in Central America - held the edge. They were absent, also.
Of course the sweet Caribbean isle of St. Maarten chatted with me about the new Jet Blue flights from Puerto Rico; Puerto Rica was there as well; the Taiwan delegation handed maps and cute pins to families; Mexico and Alaska, Tanzania and Ethiopia, Ocean City, Maryland and several Florida Resorts, and lots of prizes, raffles, food samplings and seminars. It was probably an expensive venue to staff and in which to exhibit, but probably worth it.
While the tv host Zimmern, who made his fortune eating bugs and grubs, cooked up a pot of his favorite wild clams, guidebook author Rick Steves slipped in behind me, just another member of the audience. The bug-eating speaker, comical, amiable, and learned Zimmern talked about the difference between a "tourist" and a "traveler."
For folks in place such as Panama that talk a good tourism game but do little to promote the national treasures internationally, or train hospitality workers and average citizens to put tourist courtesy at the top of the national mystique, there were lessons which could have been learned and opportunities missed.
Zimmern talked about people who go to, say, San Blas or Baru, or even city neighborhoods, and instead of taking a few quick photos and hopping back on a bus or boat, they spend a few days helping people with chores, learning their customs, eating and laughing, and building bridges of friendship.
Of course, if these bridges result in return trips and a few upscale nights at the Meridien, Gamboa Resort, Marriot, or Hard Rock and dinners with friends, it wouldn't hurt the economy.
Looking at the crowd, it was also apparent that the Washington Travel and Adventure Show attendee was the type of visitor who easily spends $300 on hiking boots; $500 on the latest REI water bottles and hoodies; rents Land Rovers and Mercedes SUVs; and will pay well for world-class guides, outfitters, and lessons.
Saturday evening at the show, 300 visitors paid $50 each to mingle with Zimmern, Steves, and the iconic guide book editor Arthur Frommer, for a dinner of exotic delicacies prepared by Zimmern and his crew.
Listening to Steves, I wonder how many absent tourist ministry bureaucrats from Panama or Costa Rica could have learned a few things about modesty and truth instead of hype, and how to add real value to family vacations, or perhaps vacations for the non-Land Rover crowd on a budget.
Whether in Bulgaria, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Panama, or Pakistan, there is a good chance that many visitors reading this, and attending the Washington expo speak only English - or rather struggle with any language other than English.
"You don't have to read the local language. You don't have to speak the local language, and the owners of a busy neighborhood restaurant, or kiosk in a marketplace (like a fish market) which might be the popular place to eat in an area without many restaurants, still can be easy for you, cost- effective, and rewarding," said Steves - whose books are to my kids what Frommer, Michelin and Duncan Hines were to my parents' generation.
I could not help but think of a favorite local restaurant such as the "typical" cuisine establishment of the Trapiche Restaurant on Via Argentina in Panama City, when Steves explained:
"Look - many of these printed menus have something scribbled in pencil or ink by hand on the bottom of the menu with the price next to it---6 euros, or whatever. This is usually the daily special. It is the daily special because the owners like foreign tourists but survive on their regular local customers. It is something fresh, cheap, healthy, and what the folks eat and like.
"But the big bonus," Steeves continued, "is, well, it was handwritten and added that morning, because that was fresh and available in the market that morning when the chef or owner went shopping for fish, or chicken, or vegetables for the day. Point to the special and order it. You don't have to know what it is. Rarely will you be disappointed."
How many times have family and friends joined me at Trapiche and found a white slip of paper under the glass table top, where the owners had slipped a daily special suggestion which was not on the menu? Always cheap, always delicious!
Most of the 170-plus exhibitors offered prizes ranging from free airfare to trips or discount guided tours, or kayak, scuba or rock-climbing lessons at exotic locations. It's too bad one of the most diverse and beautiful places I love didn't think it was important enough to be represented.
For those in attendance, they missed out on dancers in polleras (a lovely one-piece traditional skirt), bowls of free sancocho (a traditional stew or soup), aerial high-definition videos of the Panama Canal expansion project, and perhaps the smile of Kuna Yala (an indigenous tribe) women showing visitors how reverse appliqué skills turn pieces of cloth into beautiful traditional feminine wear called molas.
Better luck next year.
This article was regrettably delayed by the hospitalization of AR's editor during March of 2013, and we apologize to Mark Scheinbaum and to the Washington Travel & Adventure Show for its tardiness. Veteran reporter and AR Correspondent Mark Scheinbaum is a frequent visitor to Panama, where he works with an American international team of Kiwanis to build bridges of friendship to the Panamanian people. He has written often about it.