Once one of the largest U.S. military bases along the Panama Canal, Fort Sherman will be the site of the 250-room Gamboa Tropical Rainforest Resort.
As this gateway between the Americas prepares to divest itself of U.S. control, eco-tourism may become the next big thing, as more visitors immerse themselves in Panama’s natural beauty.
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin America Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 6, 1999
SEMAPHORE HILL, Panama — During the Cold War, the powerful radar dome atop this hill overlooking the Panama Canal was an ideal place for the U.S. military to watch out for spies and drug traffickers.
How times have changed.
The surveillance continues. But these days the radar station serves as an ingenious wildlife observatory for nature lovers spying on the numerous species of animals that inhabit Panama’s rain forest.
Renamed the Canopy Tower, the old radar station has become a symbol for a remarkable transformation taking place in Panama. Once the top U.S. military training and operations center in the Americas, Panama is trying to pin its future to environmental tourism — in many ways, a rediscovery of its roots.
Under the Panama Canal Treaties, all U.S. troops must be gone by midday Dec. 31. That leaves vacant military-controlled land, rich in its bio-diversity.
“I love the symbolism of beating swords into plowshares,” said Raul Arias de Para, the Panamanian ornithologist who dreamed up the Canopy Tower. “This was built and used by the military, and now it’s for bird-watching. What could be more appropriate than that?” he said, as he looked out over the rain forest canopy from the tower’s observation deck.
Ironically, the U.S. military presence may have helped preserve key areas of the canal rain forest. Well-patrolled perimeter fences kept out squatters and slash-and-burn farmers.
A 52-year-old former economist, twice jailed as a political opponent of Panama’s military dictatorship, Arias was among the first to visualize the opportunities for tourism on former military land.
Since then the idea has caught on. The Spanish hotel chain Sol Melia will soon open a 250-room resort hotel at Fort Espinar on the canal, once the training ground for the U.S. military’s controversial School of the Americas. Another military testing site for jungle equipment is being turned into a luxury spa.
The Canopy Tower, once a U.S. military radar station in the Panama Canal Zone, is now refurbished as an observatory for nature lovers who have an unusual window into the Panamanian rain forest.
The push for this transition to eco-tourism comes from an enterprising group of businessmen, architects and scientists.
“Countries like Panama have to exploit changes in tourism. Beaches are a thing of the past,” says Hana Ayala, president of EcoResorts International, a California-based consulting firm hired by Panama to design a national tourism strategy. “The world market is becoming more educated and health-conscious.”
Ayala is among those advocating movement from traditional tropical “sun, sand and sea” vacations toward cultural, historical and ecology tourism. “Enrichment holidays” is how she describes it.
“I always tell Panamanians they are sitting on a gold mine,” Ayala says. “This country is a treasure-trove of world-class heritage.”
Much of that is due to a unique confluence of factors. Panama is a unique land bridge between North and South America.
“Nowhere else on this planet do such features converge,” said Dr. Ira Rubinoff, director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, a Panamanian branch of the world-renowned Smithsonian Institution. “That’s why we (the Smithsonian) are here. Panama does have a unique set of circumstances.”
The formation of the Panamanian isthmus “was one of the most significant geologic events in the history of the planet,” said Rubinoff, who came to Panama as a young researcher 35 years ago.
He explains current scientific thinking: When the land mass we now know as South America split from Africa more than 65-million years ago, it became an island continent much like Australia today. “South America’s plants and animals evolved in isolation,” he said. It wasn’t until about 3-million years ago that Panama slowly emerged, severing the connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and allowing the flora and fauna of the two continents to mingle.
Thus, Panama is a virtual laboratory for the study of evolutionary change. Panama has more species of birds, mammals, reptiles and plants than Canada and the United States combined. The name panama is itself derived from an indigenous word meaning abundance of fish.
Besides nature’s interactions, man also made his mark in Panama.
As Spain’s empire grew in the 16th and 17th centuries, Panama became a new east-west trade route. Trails were cut through the forest to move the gold and silver arriving on the Pacific coast of Panama from mines in Peru and Bolivia. The treasure was hauled by mule and boat across the isthmus to Spanish galleons on the Atlantic side. That in turn attracted British pirates.
During the California Gold Rush starting in 1849, the Trans-Isthmian Railroad across Panama became the fastest route to cross from coast to coast. Half a century later, the Panama Canal was completed.
Now, the key to Panama’s future may lie in finding a mutually beneficial bond between tourism, conservation and science. The complex relations of the plants and animals that live in the rain forests and coral reefs constitute what the Smithsonian’s Rubinoff believes is “a source of fascinating stories to be interpreted to tourists.”
But Panama wants to go one step further, in an effort to scientifically enhance the traditional idea of eco-tourism. “The Smithsonian is the greatest card the country holds,” Ayala says. “Every day they (scientists) are making mind-boggling, frontier-pushing, earth-shattering discoveries here.”
In an unusual venture, the Smithsonian has signed on as consultants with one eco-tourism project on the canal, the Gamboa Tropical Rainforest Resort. The Smithsonian is providing advice on environmental standards, as well as helping to train nature guides. The hotel in return is making rooms available to scientists conducting research in the forest.
The alliance seems to be working. The Smithsonian scientists were able to convince hotel developer Herman Bern that building a parking lot on a marshy patch of land inhabited by tropical frogs was harmful. Bern now plans to build a frog pond with an observation deck for his guests.
The Smithsonian also encouraged Bern to invest in a sewage system for communities along the river that now dump raw sewage into the Chagres River.
About 45 minutes from Panama City, the resort boasts a spectacular panorama of pristine rain forest on the banks of the Chagres. Priced at $300 a night, the 100-bed hotel and spa will cater especially to nature-loving retirees. Wealthy ones.
“I believe that the future of conservation is in the hands of the hotel and tourism business,” said Ayala, a Czech-born landscape ecologist and former U.N. environmentalist.
Ayala is working with an environmental development expert at Harvard University and also has piqued the interest of Frank Gehry, the famed California architect. Gehry reportedly is considering the design of a conservation studies center at Fort Sherman, one of the largest U.S. military bases on the canal.
Skeptics warn Ayala’s tourism plan may be too ambitious for a country like Panama, which has virtually no tourism infrastructure and little or no tradition of conservation. “I wish them the best of luck,” said Abraham Pizam, director of the Institute for Tourism Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. “But it requires more than a blueprint. It’s a matter of commitment and resources.”
Despite passage in Panama of a new environmental law, there are fears that as the U.S. military abandons its bases, valuable rain forest may be razed for agriculture and housing. Already there are signs of compromise: Construction of a cruise ship terminal at the Atlantic side of the canal has damaged a coastal reef. And talk of casinos seems to clash with Panama’s new green image.
Ayala’s converts are not discouraged.
“This is a remarkable woman,” Rubinoff said. “She is not trying to sell flooded Florida real estate. She’s latched onto what Panama has and never knew what to do with.”
At the Canopy Tower, Arias emphasizes that “to achieve extraordinary goals you have to have extraordinary dreams.”
His idea came to him one night a few years ago while watching a Discovery Channel documentary on the Cold War. The narrator mentioned a number of abandoned radar towers around the globe, including Panama.
Arias had been looking for a site to build his first eco-tourism project. “I realized a tower would be perfect for bird watching,” he said.
Built of galvanized steel in the early 1960s, it was a rusting hulk when Arias found it. He approached the Panamanian government, which he knew was looking for private investors to develop unused military sites.
Undaunted by bureaucratic red tape, he persuaded the government to let his company, Ecological Entertainment, operate it as a 12-bed luxury eco-lodge. “I convinced everyone that I did not have to cut a single tree or use a bulldozer,” he said.
But Arias is the first to admit that he is in a minority when it comes to saving trees. “There still aren’t that many people interested in conservation in Panama,” he said.
That may be changing.
© Copyright 1999 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.