The ownership and full responsibility of the Panama Canal was transferred from the USA to Panama in 1999. It is used by thousands of gigantic cargo ships annually and earns the country billions. No visit is complete without at least a short day trip, passing through the enormous Miraflores Locks on a tiny cruise boat.
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Panama has far more than just the canal. A small but amazingly diverse country, a traveller can visit not only two different oceans in one day, but also combine in less than a week pristine beaches, untouched rainforest and coffee-growing highlands with a wide range of cultural experiences, including a 300-year-old World Heritage site: Casco Antiguo.
This Central American nation has a landmass of 75,000 square kilometres, similar to that of the Czech Republic. Panama has two neighbours, to the south Columbia and to the north Costa Rica. As of 2015, Panama had a population of 4 million people, the capital Panama City is home to 1.7 locals. The country’s importance as a land bridge between South and North America makes for interesting and abundant wildlife, some of it unique to Panama.
In 2013, Panama welcomed 1.7 million international tourists.Small ecotourism resorts have opened, some owned and run by the local communities. The indigenous Kuna people of Kuna Yala (formerly the San Blas Islands), off the Caribbean coast, rebelled against their Spanish colonial masters. Today, they are semi-autonomous and rely on tourism for an income, either directly through small family-owned island lodges, or indirectly through the sale of handicrafts, especially appliqué work.
The Kuna have been able to protect their environment from logging and to insist that any tourism businesses in their areas are at least 50 per cent owned by their own people, which should be a model for indigenous people elsewhere. Elsewhere in the country, development has not been so well planned. Islands in the Caribbean Bocas del Toro Archipelago have suffered from illegal and inappropriate construction of holiday homes and hotels, as has the coffee-growing area, Boquete, where the world’s most expensive coffee grows.