Panning Panama

Why do people go to Central America? Well, the natural sights are gorgeous, there’s the Panama Canal and for so many Norteamericanos, there’s the strong dollar, the weak peso or Bolivar and the shopping. Maybe though with Panama, it’s best to stick with nature and the Canal, at least as far as airport duty-free shopping goes. Because at Panama City‘s Tocumen Airport, it’s a little tricky.

Named after the river that was diverted to make place for the airport, Tocumen is a showpiece for the nation’s major international airline, COPA, and the airline’s drive toward the first ranks of regional carriers and indeed toward the mainstream of truly admired international carriers. The airline itself – punctual, clean, and courteous – leaves little to be desired, but its plan to be the Hub of the Americas through its Tocumen operation rests on a facility that may need a little work.

The airport’s arrivals area, destination for perhaps half of COPA’s passengers, is standard issue Latin America drab, with signs suggesting that the never-ending work is actually work in progress, although it consists largely of men in work clothes standing around supervising each other, handwritten direction signs, and unmarked bathrooms. The departures area, where the other half of COPA’s passengers make flight connections for such routes as Lima to Caracas or Bogota to Tegucigalpa, is a different story. The work there has actually almost been finished. Sort of.

The airport, the airline, and Panamanian tourism officials rave about the duty-free shopping in the airport and on first sight it certainly looks shiny and glossy. It’s miles, or kilometers, ahead of most airports in the region. But try looking for something to buy: the half dozen duty-free liquor stores have exactly the same selection of booze and fragrances, at exactly the same prices, with exactly the same displays. The fashion merchandisers -Izod and the like- are full-price counterparts of look-alike downtown stores. The electronics stores, of which there are several, are also identical in layout, merchandise, and pricing. Only one shop – and this one not a shop but a modest temporary stall – actually has Panamanian-type merchandise, and it’s way off to the side. It’s almost as if the authorities are embarrassed about an outlet that is a little less shiny and a lot less bland than the other merchants. So to paraphrase that old saying about New York (‘great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there’), one might say of Panama and Tocumen, it’s a great place to fly to or through, but I wouldn’t want to shop there.


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