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A talk with the tourism minister


A conversation with Tourism Minister Rubén Blades

Rubén Blades, interviewed by Eric Jackson


The following is taken from a conversation between the editor of The Panama News and the Minister of Tourism in the Panamanian Tourism Institute (IPAT) offices that lasted nearly two and one-half hours. We got into the controversial issues of the moment --- changes in the time allotted in tourist visas and whether people will have to get immunizations to visit Panama --- and such diverse subjects as garden pests, grade B movies, saril and what's wrong with kids these days as well as other topics more closely related to the job that Blades does as director of the IPAT government tourism bureau and a minister with voice but not a vote in the Torrijos cabinet.

The conversation had its origins in an editorial in The Panama News to which Blades took exception, and one part of that article he pointed out to be factually incorrect. Based on the IPAT payroll, published on the institute's website, which lists the employees starting with Blades at number one and scrolling down to 732 at the bottom, it was represented that there are 732 people working at IPAT. Actually, however, a number of those positions are unfilled and Blades said that he has 399 people, not 732, working under his direction.

The parts of the text that follows that are in italics are the interviewer speaking, the parts in plain text Blades.

Tourist visas

Blades: First of all, that visa issue --- I'm going to tell you what I think. Your position is the total amount of days a tourist can stay in Panama with a 90-day visa extendable to six months is more than the time is more than the time she or he can stay on a 30-day visa extendable to three months.

Again, it's a matter of what people think a tourist is.

Jackson: I noticed you also had that argument with...

But the argument is, this is the law: Ley 8....


Ley 8 says, in Article 5, letter O, it says "TOURIST: Any natural person not a resident of the Republic of Panama that visits the country for a period no greater than three months with the exclusive purpose of recreation, observation or study, [and the Panamanians and other residents of the country who travel for health, recreational or relaxation reasons, to other places in the national territory that are not their place of residence.]"

My position as far as the visa scenario when it was reduced from 180 days to 90 days, my understanding was, first issue a visa for 30 day, if you want to stay another you get the extension, and if you want to stay and if you want to stay an additional 30 days which leads to 90 days, you could. My position, our reading, is that tourists --- tourists --- they stay between seven, 10, 15 days. Some may stay a month, very rarely. So my feeling is the tourists who come to Panama don't need 180 days.

And that gets to the point of defining, "tourist," and would you agree that tourism is a niche business, that there's all kinds of different tourists?

Yes, but also, as I read it, the law says three months.

I've talked to people in various parts of the tourism industry about this visa law, and most people in most niches say it doesn't bother them. But it seems that the two things --- and by definition, by law, you say they're not tourists --- are the yachties, and more than the yachties, the snowbirds, the Canadians and the people from the northern tier of the United States that like to spend the cold months here, and some of those people will be four, five, six months down here when it's cold up here.

But what I'm saying is this: some people --- and I'm guessing --- some people want to live here and not pay any taxes.

I pay taxes in the United States, so I know how the tax law is in the United States. It's territorial. You have to pay. It doesn't matter where you are, you have to pay taxes. In this country, some people come in --- they're not tourists, they are not tourists --- they come and they stay longer than the month or the three months and they stay for a variety of reasons. Some of them, like you say, they want the warm and all of that, but the bottom line on all of this is some people don't want to pay taxes here and they don't want to pay taxes there. That's a whole different ballgame. I don't get involved in that.

So you think that people spending the winter here, that's out of the purview of tourism?

I cannot call "tourism" everyone who comes here because they come from a foreign country. It has to do with their reason for coming.

You can claim that this is a very special niche of tourism that lasts five months or six months of the year. It's not what the law says, and if you're going to stay the additional three months, get a permit.

Why don't we make it clear what it is that people who come to Panama to stay for a long period of time have to do? Why don't they know? Why is it such a problem that we have to create fictions like people coming here for three months, and then they have to go out into international waters and then come back here to qualify for another three months? What do we have to do that for?

You're coming here and you want to be here for five months and that's what you want to do? Apply for a five-month special visa of some sort and stay, and get it right away.

Do you think that's going to happen, that they're going to change the visa laws? There have been some discussions about that.

I think we should be clear about what we need to do so people who choose us have the least hassle possible and everyone knows what to do, because sometimes my scope of work becomes clouded.

My definition of tourism, and again, my definition of what is not tourism, sometimes clashes. Some people talk about residential tourism. I think that's an oxymoron because my position on tourism is transient --- you move in and out. You're coming here to live? Then let us deal with that.

The same thing for people who make investments for building --- guy comes in with $100 million and he wants to build one hotel with 400 rooms or 300 rooms and 9,000 villas. Why? --- because that's where the money is, not in the hotel. The money is in the villas. And now I've got to deal with that as if it were a tourist investment, because there are no incentives for this type of investment? No. Talk to the people who have to do with MIVI, who have to do with the laws, all the stuff you were talking about --- streets and permits for water and electricity and all of that --- deal with them. I want to deal with the hotel.

You have to understand something here. We're growing. A lot of stuff here should have been taken care of a long time ago and it wasn't. So when you walk in, you walk in to all sorts of things --- stupid things, some of them. For instance, somebody comes into Panama and they come by land through Chiriqui and they're checked, and they go to Colon and they love it and they want to stay another month. Oh --- to get your extension you have to go to the place where you came in, so they've got to drive to Chiriqui to get this thing. Come on, that's stupid. We should be able to do that in Colon.

All of these things we're handling.

I haven't heard any criticism from tourists. Last year Panama grew 20.1 percent in terms of tourism.

But I hear a lot of people complaining, a lot of people complaining with [Boquete developer Sam] Taliaferro, and everything has to do with people who come here for a reason different than tourism.


You got all sorts of people coming here who are not North American. We can't have one attitude toward the North Americans and another attitude toward the Colombians....

I'd like to get into that. You said we can not treat the Americans different than the Colombians. From the gringos here, I hear it a lot of times that we should and I hear it from Panamanians a lot too, given their attitude about Colombians, right or wrong.

We have these immigration laws that discriminate against the Caribbean countries particularly, and Asia particularly, also Africa and the Middle East.

Asia is taking off economically. Do you think that's a problem for tourism that people from Hong Kong or India or some of these countries that are taking off face this heritage of discrimination in being able to come here and visit?

No, I think in the past whatever vestige of discrimination that was enforced by other governments here, especially during the 40s, has been erased by the law. I don't think that the law allows that kind of discrimination.

What you still have are politically based types of exclusion [of people] from certain countries that at one point the United States didn't want here, for instance Russia and the countries in Eastern Europe. Those things need to be adjusted.

As far as race, as far as I know there is no restraint or anything that forbids people from travel.

My father was a detective, so I come from a family where you learn to try to understand things from both sides.

A lot of the people who come here, to go from here to the United States, for instance...

It's a big-time racket.

... come from a certain part of the world. Therefore, the Immigration department is going to be very careful and leery of groups who may all of a sudden arrive from certain parts of the world where you have already detected that there is a very lucrative business of smuggling people, into the United States specifically. They come to Panama to go to the States. I don't know if Immigration is going to create a special type of policy, again, that's not my realm.

As far as tourism is concerned, I would very much think that more and more tourists would be coming this way if we can find airlift, if we can find transportation for them to come from India and from Asia.

China's economy is taking off the roof and it seems that the political climate is relaxing to the point where they're not as afraid as they were at one point of having their nationals travel and learn about other people's customs and political systems. Right now tourism in China is growing into Europe. It's going to take awhile. I don't think that it's going to happen overnight but I do think that Panama for business reasons is going to be a center of interest for China as it is right now. I don't have a problem with people coming and the country doesn't have a problem with that.

Our problem has to do with the realities. Some groups tend to be identified more with certain types of activities and Immigration has to check it.

And of course, a version of that argument is what people say about Colombians....

Well, it's not what people say about Colombians. My grandmother's Colombian. She was not a smuggler. My grandmother was not a drug dealer. My grandmother was a very proud Colombian woman that I loved and will always cherish. The problem is not the Colombians, the problem is that if you see the statistics, the criminal statistics, and you find with alarming frequency people of a certain country are involved in activities that result in crime, then unfortunately you start to pay more attention to those groups and then as a result innocents pay for sinners.

Crime and the Via Veneto scene

Immigration is not the only other agency that affects tourism. There's a couple that come to mind, one of which is the police, the tourism police. Panama has had some bad publicity in the past few months. It wasn't really about tourism, but it was out on Via Veneto, and Via Veneto, among the people who live here, is seen as something of a crazy scene. All this street prostitution and petty crime happens there, and then you had this gringa who lived there and was killed, allegedly by another gringa...

By her partner, from the US....

Yeah, and it was screaming headlines for however long. I don't want to prejudice the trial, since the lady said she didn't do it and I think the media owe it to people not to prejudice someone's trial, but in any case there is this perception that Via Veneto is becoming a bit crazy, almost approaching like the Boston Combat Zone. It's hard to walk down there at night without at least several hookers on the street saying this and that, and there has been a little bit of petty crime and then there's a lot of people just trying to make their living and selling things along there. Are you concerned about Via Veneto and that scene, and that something might happen and get blown up?

One has to deal with what you have to deal with. I think the police in Panama do their job. Relatively speaking, I am sure that we have less crime against tourists than in any other place in Central America, including Costa Rica.

I think the fact that Via Veneto is becoming such a place --- I don't know because I don't go there at night --- the police maybe have to be more energetic, the mayor might make that part of his urban renewal platform, but I don't think that Panama is going to be like Times Square and 42nd Street in New York were in 1980. I don't think it's going to happen.

Unfortunately, the more money you have in one area, it's going to start attracting more people. It's like the issue with drugs or whatever. People are going to do whatever they're going to to, whenever they, whenever we, think that we can get away with it.

If people find what we shouldn't allow in the area, it's the sense, the feel of impunity and permissiveness to would allow people to think "oh, this is OK here." That's what we have to be careful about, but I'm not concerned with it becoming institutionalized in the sense of a Combat Zone, which was tolerated in Boston to the point that that's what it is.

It's not going to happen here because first of all it's very close to a church and secondly it's too central and people are not going to allow it.

Public health and immunizations for travelers

 [We got into a discussion about how Blades operates as a cabinet minister, with a voice at cabinet meeting but not a vote, because constitutionally IPAT is not a ministry, and how sometimes he's consulted about things and sometimes he isn't.]

The health scenario --- nobody came to us and said anything. It was a law that was being discussed, I heard later...

A treaty...

I said, "don't you think that because this involves tourism, to a degree, with people coming in, you should think about calling people that are involved in the industry?" But they said no, this is just a discussion.

It wasn't something that was going to be required for every tourist. My understanding is that the requisite for a vaccination is in a case of emergency.

I get several emails a month with people asking about this, more lately but all along for years I've gotten things. It seems that people want to know about yellow fever because they read about what happened years ago and I tell people "no, don't get a yellow fever shot because it's not required and we haven't had a yellow fever case since the 20s in this country." And I remember when I was living in the States, there was a little bit of a stir and a public service ad you did, putting a condom on a banana....

Oh, yes. Somebody sued....

So it seems that you have a certain consciousness about public health. What this treaty is about, really, is the panic after SARS. They're afraid of not a national emergency, but an international emergency...


To implement it they have to develop the worldwide ability to create and mass produce vaccines --- if there's no shot for something, what can you do? In any case, there's this international treaty and most countries have adhered to it. Do you think that it's going to be the case, relatively soon --- at least in the next few years --- that anyone who travels is going to have to carry immunization records? Do you think that's likely to happen?

I think that if it happens anywhere, it's going to start in the United States, because the needs of defense right now have expanded to bacteriological war, to all kinds of global forms of terrorism. I think that this is going to be more and more stringent.

At some point --- I don't know if this has happened --- if you come from certain place in the world, for instance, where AIDS is prevalent, maybe in the future you won't be able to go to certain countries unless you have some type of proof.

This is a doomsday scenario thing. Right now we don't know what the future is going to be like.

Do I think that eventually you're going to have to have a certain type of immunization? I wouldn't be surprised, but it wouldn't be a matter of one country, it would be a matter of international policy.

Well, if one country did it and others did not, that country loses its tourism...

Not just tourism, you lose all kinds of things.

If the United States wants to protect itself, for instance, what are they going to do? They have to protect their border. And in order to protect their border they come up with stuff like "Let's build a wall" --- which I don't know who's going to build to wall in Mexicans or who's going to pay for that, but they're building it right now and it's moving along, one way. But how do you stop disease, or how do you stop other forms of invasion? There's going to be constriction done through immigration policy, that's what I think is going to end up happening.

If you start to think about stuff, you may end up with a very gloomy outlook on the world --- that we're not going to be able to travel anywhere...

You can get an appreciation for science fiction...

Yes, well, I'm a public official and I can't go into science fiction, or I will be science fiction.

Sex tourism?

Speaking of public health, and getting back to Via Veneto for a moment, there's the factor of sex tourism...

That doesn't exist.

You don't think that there are people who come here because prostitution is legal?

I think there's degenerates who travel from one country to another. That doesn't make them tourists. They are degenerates who travel from one country to another.

Hey, if a guy kills people in a country, and he travels to another country to kill somebody, he's a killer tourist?

There are rumors, and I haven't gone over to the Via Veneto Hotel to check, that there's a bunch of American men coming for big event to meet Panamanian women...

They must be desperate.

Well, there's a lot of desperate guys, these guys my age and older, coming here looking for younger women. Sometimes I hear these terrible stories from them about how "I thought she loved me and she and her boyfriend ripped me off." It's hard to feel very sorry for them...

I don't see people traveling thousands of miles to find something they can find in their home, in their place of origin.

[The discussion got into sex offenders who have been deported from here, or who are notoriously still living here.]

Dolphins and the IPAT vote on the Maritime Corridor Commission

IPAT is represented on the Marine Corridor Commission and there was that controversial vote, although a final decision has not been made, about whether that dolphin thing is happening. Do you stay on top of all the committees and commissions [on which IPAT is represented]?

I don't think we should be on all the committees and all the commissions that are formed, just because we have something that maybe has to do with the matter at hand.

For instance, when I found out that we were members of the marine commission I asked the person "Why are we members?" and no one's come up with an explanation, as far as I'm concerned, of why, other than, "Oh, it's tourism --- it's got to do with the ocean, or the natural resource." And I said to the person "Do you know anything about dolphins?" and he said no and I said "Don't go to any other meetings. You have nothing to say, you're not going." I told him not to go.

This is what we're going to do. In the new law, IPAT is not going to have anything to do with anything other than tourism, which is what we're supposed to do. We're not going to be on any kind of junta directiva of anything. I don't want the people here all over the place. I want the people putting their nose to the job and that's all we're going to do.

Let me go back to this dolphin business.

I think if you care about dolphins and you have a maid, I think you should care about paying the maid her Social Security. I don't believe in people who care more about dolphins than they care about their maid.

And I have a problem with people who have a problem with dolphin [parks] but they don't have a problem with zoos. Or they have dogs and they don't feed them or they have cats and they don't look after them or they have a horse that goes like this [he imitates paso fino steps], which is unnatural, and they don't see anything wrong with that. If you care about animals, let's go all the way, let's not just look at the dolphins. That's one thing.

And also, if you care about animals, you should care about people even more.

When it comes down to the dolphin issue, I personally don't think it's a good idea to be hunting anything such as dolphins in Panamanian waters. Personally.

Now, having said that, I understand that in the States they have this facility with dolphins, where dolphins do tricks or whatever, but I also know, and I've seen it, where dogs and cats can have therapeutic effects on children and people who have some forms of disability. And I don't know dolphins --- I've never touched one, never have --- but I believe that maybe if we can, if there is such a thing as I heard --- and I don't know, because I learned a little bit because of all of this nonsense, this hoopla here (it's not nonsense, but the thing that's happening here) --- that there are places where dolphins are raised in captivity, such as dogs and cats and birds, whatever, and we can import from the United States. There's a big facility in Miami. If we can import the dolphins here, then I think it would be something to do.

Now I say this because I want to be honest, but it's none of my business whether they bring dolphins here, or clowns, or pterodactyls, or mammals or whales. I don't have anything to do with that. ANAM has to do with that, MIDA has to do with that and whatever. I don't have deal with that, or animal life or ocean life or plant life for that matter, other than they don't destroy it while they're making a hotel.

People come in and they tell us they're going to do this and they fit the law's profiles, they have to go to ANAM, they have to go to MIVI, they have to go to all these places to get the permits. Then we go and check that the services that they are providing are what they said they would provide.

There are a lot of interfaces between IPAT and our natural resources. The earliest, the oldest, most famous ecotourism has to be Piñas Bay, the fishery there, and of course Panama is very big for bird watching and a lot of people don't know but it is...

But there's the competence, the jurisdiction. I would say yes, there is the attraction, and then there is the product. We deal with the product.

Be careful --- we deal with the product. We don't mess with the animal, we don't go to the attraction. Somebody else does that.

Promoting cultural events

There's one area that's out of your jurisdiction and maybe within your personal competence. I've noticed that for this [upcoming] year --- and actually in previous years IPAT has been a co-sponsor of the jazz festivals --- but this year you and Danilo Pérez are doing some promotional stuff, more than you have done in previous years. That's sort of become an annual tourist attraction --- people come from all around --- but you know, it seems with so many cultural events, and sports events, there's just not any coordination with tourism.

I remember going, just by luck one time, to Panama Al Brown Arena in Colon, to see boxing night, and there happened to be a cruise ship that had a lot of Panamanians, people with Panamanian roots from New York, a lot of black people, West Indians, and so the arena that night had a lot of New Yorkers there to watch boxing. But you just don't see any kind of coordination, generally, between the sporting world and the tourism world, and [between the cultural scene and tourism.]

Actually, when you try to do a calendar of which band is playing where, most the promoters and band managers, they won't even take free publicity. They can't be bothered.

Is there ever any thought about trying to coordinate the cruise ships and some of the other tourism with some of these attractions?

Not just the cruise ships, but everything.

[At this point IPAT's chief of public relations, Lupita Valdés, says that the organization has taken notice of this disconnection and that if people tell them of an event, they'll add it to the calendar of events listing on the IPAT website, and the interviewer confessed to sometimes pirating information off of that listing for The Panama News.]

The problem, again, is what I have been saying: we do not create the attractions.

Let me tell you a story. We went to the Carnival. We said "You need to create a product." So we called the tour operators. They're the ones who have to make the packages. And they don't.

What happened with this is has to do with Danilo. I know Danilo. Danilo came here, and said "Rubén, we're doing this. It's our third year now, we're trying to do this, and Danilo IS the product, and this time we called the people from COPA and there is a group of people who are behind this and all of a sudden now we're creating this package.

One of the things we're going to do now at ATLPA is we're going to put up a big sign with a calendar of events, which we never had.

I asked "Why don't we have a calendar of events?" You call people about what they're doing and they don't call you back....

Tell me about it!

Let me tell you a story about Cocle. I went to the Festival de Torito Guapo, I believe in October, in Anton. And they complained, these people: "The hotels, they don't let anybody out, they don't let them come here." And I said that's not true. If you think about it, if you have people who come to an all-inclusive where they can eat and drink anything they want all day, the hotel guy is hoping that they'll leave, at least for eight hours, and don't drink and eat his stuff.

It's not that. They want them to go, and not drink and eat those things. If they're not letting them out it's because a) there's nowhere to go; b) the people are not accredited with them --- you can't just let these people go with somebody they don't know and get robbed or get intoxicated there and then come and be sick at the hotel and then have the hotel run the tab with the lawsuit.

So I said "Do you have any product?" You have to create the product. For instance, the Festival de Torito Guapo: you've got 1,500 tourists there. You can have 300 Italians, Canadians, French there at the hotel looking at CNN at eight o'clock at night. They don't want to eat any more, they don't want to drink anymore, they have nothing to do because they can't go to the beach because it's dark. But they certainly would want to go to the Festival de Torito Guapo.

But they need to be taken. They to be taken. You need a guide that speaks English, a guide that speaks Italian or whatever, you need a car, transportation that's secure --- a man with insurance, with a license --- to convince the hotel that you're a reputable enterprise. Otherwise they're not going to let these people go with a guy with a patch on the eye.

The capital

About this city, the capital here: certainly if they ever actually give us a new sewage system it should be a great boon for tourism...

Yep. It's going to happen. You know why? Because the situation has been forced upon us.

When I first saw all the stuff starting to be built, my first reaction was the same reaction you have and it's the reaction everyone has. What are we going to do with the traffic, what are we going to do with the sewage, what are we going to do the need for power? Everybody thought about it because it was obvious that a lot of stuff was happening and you can project what it's going to be like in the future.

That in itself has proved that in every bad thing there's a silver lining.

As a result of that, we had to face new policies that had to do with how are we going to deal with the traffic in the streets, what are we going to do about the water, what are we going to do with the lights, with the electricity and all that in the city --- issues we needed to take care of a long time ago, not now, but a long time ago.

The buildings and all this have something to do, definitely, with the construction of the Cinta Costera and all the stuff that came out of it. If you see the first plan, it's not the same as this last plan. This last plan made a lot more sense, because now it eliminate the bridges, it eliminated the semaforos, now it's going to make more sense. I personally would have liked for it to have been even further, but it is what it is.

I think the issue of the sewage is going to be resolved, the ocean, the bahia, is going to be cleaned. We will see that.

Culture and tourism

To what extent do you think that Panama is becoming or about to become an exporter of culture, and what do you think that has to do with tourism?

Well, we have to create on a national scale the sort of self-awareness that will provide for self-esteem that will cement one of the biggest attractions that we have, which is the people of Panama.

Contrary to what some people think or say, when we ran our first tests on a national scale, and when we confirmed through the cooperation of the Contraloria study on tourist expenditures of 4,500 people, we found, in our first poll, that people love the people here. They like the people. They like the way that people treated them --- this is what we found.

I was kind of surprised at this, not because we are people that are not hospitable, but we can also be very stand-offish. It seems that we tend to do that among ourselves, but when it comes to other people we tend to be more considerate, which is a great thing. Now we have to apply that to ourselves.

But I was very pleasantly surprised. I remember when they gave me the numbers I couldn't believe it. It was incredible.

We have to make people aware of that. Because what you're saying is important. We have our culture. It's as much an attraction for people as anything else. If we lose that then we're going to lose a very, very important part of our possibility in terms of tourism.

As far as being overtaken by tourism, and not just tourism but second residence, we have had conflicts in certain areas like Boquete because I think we didn't spend enough time trying to create the sort of common ground where people could come together and meet.

I'm very concerned with the bad publicity we have here, internally, in the papers. I'm not talking about criticism, I'm talking about constant harping about the negative side of what we have, and never talking about anything positive. I'm talking about the circulation of a paper depending on showing tits and dead people and disasters. That's been a concern because the more you see that, the less you think of yourself and of your country, and I'm afraid of that.

Panama has always been a center of movement, and we have been able to develop a personality. You are different. You're North American, but you're different from a North American from somewhere else because you're Panamanian. You're Panamanian. It doesn't matter where you go, you already have that. It's enough.

I went to New York and lived 30 years [in the States], but when I came back here I had many things that I learned up there from very nice folks, many nice people, but I came back and I was Panamanian. I still think like a Panamanian.



Also in this section:

Another form of transportation
A talk with the tourism minister


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