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More than just a canal

Panama, with its breathtaking natural spleandour, is a fitting venue for the celetial congregation of 72 world beauties. If you can't be at the Panama Canal Village Covention Center on June 3rd, there's no cause to panic. Here's a brief snapshot of the country and its people.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2003 10:35 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

Panama lived quietly in the shadow of the US military for decades, known mostly for its inter-oceanic canal and ruled by local generals who preferred it that way.

Financially, the country depended on the annual income from the US-run Panama Canal and the more than US$600 million the 14,000 US soldiers spent here annually.

Now, the US military officials are gone and the last local general, Manuel Antonio Noriega, is in a Florida prison on drug smuggling charges following a 1988 US invasion.

The country is betting that tourism will make up for those lost dollars, and it hopes that when it hosts the Miss Universe pageant on Tuesday, the world will see not only the canal - but a growing hotel industry accompanied by lush wildlife.

That will be the backdrop as 72 young women parade before television cameras, vying for the title of the most beautiful woman in the world.

The contest will be held in a new convention center built on a former US military base on the Pacific side of the canal.

A short causeway leads tourists to a tiny island previously closed to the public and now a large marina.

Hotels are springing up in other former military areas, sites of rich ecosystems that surround the 650-square-kilometer Lake Gatun, used by ships to move from one ocean to another.

Panama also hopes tourists will come to its 100th birthday party in November. It will host regional presidential summits and a hemispheric conference on the preservation of ecological resources

According to Tourism Institute director Liriola Pitti, income from tourism in 2002 was US$679 million, surpassing total annual canal tolls for the first time.

Panama became independent from Colombia in 1903 with the enthusiastic support of the United States.

The United States built the canal and was given a 8-kilometer-wide stretch of land along the banks of the canal where US law ruled and soldiers trained for war.

On December 31, 1999, the United States turned over to Panama administration of the canal and took its last soldiers home.

"The canal is run better than it was under the United States," Roberto Eisenmann Jr., banker, businessman and former newspaper publisher said.

The most important thing is that by law it is kept away from politics."

Foreign companies have built ports to provide services to ships making use of the canal.

The number of containers handled by the canal ports went from 250,000 in the last year of US administration to 1.8 million last year.

Between 1995 and 2001, private tourism investment reached US$600 million, said Cesar Tribaldos, president of the Panamanian Hotel Association.

During the Miss Universe contest, Panama will have nine minutes of television time to show the expected 600 million viewers that it is a good tourist destiny, Tribaldos said.

"We were born to globalization," Eisenmann said. "We have a dynamic business sector, and politically we have had five, nationwide elections, and in each one the opposition won. That is a good sign."

Tourism and democracy have not solved all the problems of this country of nearly 3 million people, but Eisenmann says Panama "is a little jewel in spite of the damage we Panamanians inflict on it."

"I am worried about the economic and social polarization of the country," he said. "The government should concentrate on social development."

First Published: Jun 01, 2003 13:57 IST