The best magazine in the Republic of Panama, after Mundo Social, is without a doubt the one called Apatel, la revista hotelera, which we received as a gift in one of the hotels in the capital that we frequent.
It is filled with all kind of useful information. There was an interview with the president of Apatel, and another one with a lady from the Tourism Authority who is in charge of marketing Panama as a tourism destination but seemed entirely occupied by the, at the time of writing, upcoming carnival.
We also learned that the hoteliers know very well what tourists like and what they don't like here.
For example, we read an article by one Roberto Jean-Francois, who works at the Panama Hotel School in Clayton. He describes a conversation with a colleague, who asked him, "what do you think tourists dislike most?"
Well, dear reader, what do you think? The article lists various possibilities. Bad service in hotels and businesses? No. Chaotic traffic in the city? No. Panamanian manners? There is another article in the same magazine about that, saying that if Panama wants to continue to grow people need to learn how to be friendly and smile every now and then - but that is not the most off-putting issue for tourists either. Panamanian food, then? Yeah, that is indeed pretty bad but no, that's not the worst either.
What tourists really dislike more than anything else, that is, according to the Apatel magazine, and who are we to disagree with the experts, is the trash everywhere and general carelessness ("la basura y el descuido").
Of course the fine people of Apatel are hardly the first to notice - plenty of others have written about this already and have come to the same inevitable conclusion: Panamanians are, generalizing of course, cochinos. Writes Roberto Jean-Fancois:
... se vive immerso entre basura, calles sucias, matorrales sin cortar, sin aceras, cordones de calle rotos, áreas verdes descuidadas.......
It goes on in that same spirit for a paragraph or two, and of course every bit of it is true. But then - just as with the story about the lack of smiling - he gets into this, "we need to change this" and start with education and with ourselves and so on.
This is a mistake. The trash being thrown around everywhere is just a visible expression of a mentality that dominates the country. It is not just the literal trash that Panamanians live in harmony with; they live surrounded by political trash, entrepreneurial trash, surveilled everywhere by corrupt police trash, and as workers they are usually treated like trash. And they don't care to change anything about it.
At the same time, Panamanians maintain that they are so happy in life that they are first on the world's happiness indexes. In other words, what may be a put-off for tourists and a problem for hoteliers is not seen as a problem at all by majorities here. Good luck turning a whole culture around.