by Luis Alberto Sierra G.
PANAMA CITY, July 7 (Xinhua) -- The arrival of a large number of Chinese travellers can help spur development in Panama, a Panamanian official said recently.
Panama's tourism industry hopes to see more Chinese leisure travelers, Gustavo Him, head of the state-run Panama Tourism Authority (ATP), told Xinhua in an interview.
"The groups that are coming to Panama are not all tourist groups yet," noted Him, adding "the potential that China has in our country is huge."
Since China and Panama established diplomatic relations on June 13, 2017, travels between the two countries have been easier, with a more flexible visa application process in place.
According to official data, the number of Chinese travelers to Panama rose by a significant 40 percent in 2018, compared with the year before, mostly fueled by business travels sparked by increased trade and stronger bilateral ties.
China's outbound tourism is a growing market segment that's new to Panama, but worth studying and attracting, Him said.
"We must ensure the continuity of a job that is not easy, because it is a market that we do not know and we have to meet their demands in a different way," Him said.
"The Chinese are not that much into sun and beach tourism. They prefer rural tourism, history, culture, nature ... In addition, gastronomy is fundamental to them," he added.
The newly established relationship between the two countries has already created many opportunities, including those in the tourism sector, Him said, citing the launch of a direct flight between Panama City and Beijing via China's national carrier Air China as an example.
The first direct flight, which made a technical stopover in the U.S. city of Houston, was inaugurated on April 5, 2018 at Panama City's Tocumen International Airport.
Since then, demand for the flight has been steadily growing, and officials are now looking into the possibility of opening other routes, Him said.
For example, Shanghai-headquartered China Eastern Airlines has expressed an interest in flying to Panama, which would increase the connectivity between the two countries and make fares more competitive.
In addition, the ATP has contacted other Latin American countries, such as Colombia and Costa Rica, to explore the possibility of creating a regional tourism route, so that Chinese tourists making long-distance trips to Latin America can make the most of their journey.
"When you have a multi-destination offer, and that might also include Cuba, you are already offering something more," Him said.
"We also talked about a cruise that could depart from Panama, and include even more destinations in the Caribbean," he added.