Peace-Building through Tourism in Multicultural and Demilitarized Panama

October 10, 2016

The success of the tourism industry depends on government stability and an assurance of personal safety.[i] Not surprisingly, the industry responds immediately to political instability.  Even in post-conflict nations where histories of revolution and political uprising become tourism attractions (Babb 2011; Sánchez and Adams 2008), a degree of political and social stability is necessary to bring in tourism development.

Panama is often imagined as a transshipment point for drugs and a corrupt, unsafe, and dictatorial nation. Panama’s period of military rule covered almost a quarter of a century, from 1968 to 1989, one of the most enduring in Latin America.  After the U.S. invasion (known as Operation Just Cause) to remove de-facto Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega in December 1989, Panama began the postcolonial period of its history by initiating a democratic period and preparing for the removal of direct U.S. influence in both the Panama Canal and Canal Zone.  As a result of this transition, successive governments have attempted to strengthen the economy with tourist dollars by constructing an image of a peaceful, de-militarized nation, safe for tourists and attractive for both its ecological and ethnic diversity.

In this national strategy, marginalized populations—indigenous peoples and blacks —find themselves acknowledged and promoted as part of a colorful, multicultural national heritage, inextricably tied to a safe and police-free state.  Have these strategies empowered these populations or contributed to their wellbeing? Are de-militarization and multiculturalism the state’s approach to law and order?  I propose that democratic governments in Panama have produced a normalized, police-free state ideally suited for tourism; however, this approach has translated at the local level into circumscribed practices that privilege tourists and foreign investors.  The profit-seeking international tourism industry has contributed to a discursive acceptance of Panama’s ethnic complexity, producing “harmless” multiculturalism and reducing ethnic cultures to performance within delimited contexts.  As such, multiculturalism—often times called upon in connection with tourism—is not always liberating for ethnic minorities.  In fact, it frequently brings its own sets of tensions that both destabilize and reinforce traditional hierarchies.


Constructing Multiculturalism in Panama’s Tourism Industry

Until the mid-to-late-1990s, Panama was not an established tourism destination. As previously noted, one reason for limited governmental and private interest in tourism—and the global tourism industry’s lack of attention to Panama—was its image as both unstable and highly militarized.  Prior to 1989, only three places were marketed for tourism: the Panama Canal, the Duty Free Zone (in the city of Colón), and the Comarca Guna-Yala in the Archipelago of San Blas (Guerrón Montero 2015).

With the onset of formal democracy[ii] and the imminent departure of U.S. troops from the Panama Canal, successive governments have declared tourism as the most viable alternative for economic development and peaceful nation building.  By 1998, tourism was the third-highest contributor to the gross domestic product of Panama.[iii]  Currently, tourism is the first industry of Panama, followed by the Panama Canal and the Duty Free Zone in Colon.

Alongside this newfound industry, a different narrative is constructed in post-invasion Panama, where the Panamanian government presents tourism as a way to replace a militarized approach to peace.  It does this by stressing Panama’s demilitarization process, the opening of every territory in Panama (including the Canal Zone and the Archipelago of San Blas) to peaceful travel by tourists, and giving foreigners opportunities to purchase land in a country deemed safe and welcoming.  And in spite of the existence of a strong national security force, the presence of the police is only mentioned in the context of forces trained specifically to serve the needs of tourists.

Panama’s current tourism slogan, “Panama is more than a Canal,” is a remarkable turn in the politics of the nation.  Panamanian scholars stress the relevance of the country’s struggle, beginning in 1903 when it was instituted as a republic, to assert its sovereignty over the Canal Zone (Gandásegui 1993; Sánchez 2002).  However, the main objective of all administrations since 1990 has been to highlight Panama’s many tourism alternatives other than the Canal, by specifically promoting tourism as a viable economic industry (eco- and ethno-tourism in particular) mainly based on the country’s rich multiculturalism[iv] and by recasting certain ethnic groups and the regions they inhabit as safe and tourism-friendly.

In light of the recognition of the potential economic benefits of multiculturalism, Panama exploits and commodifies its ethnic diversity to draw tourists.  Panama is depicted as a place of great ethnic and racial diversity, an ideal eco-touristic and retirement destination, and also a non-militarized nation.  Panama’s multiculturality is used to significantly differentiate the country from neighboring Costa Rica, a globally popular tourism destination but one with arguably less ethnic diversity.  Because the tourism industry presents Costa Rica as a peaceful eco-paradise, Panama diversifies its offerings by adding ethnic tourism and heritage tourism to the picture, while also highlighting that, like Costa Rica, Panama is ecologically diverse and a “peaceful country” without a military system.

I propose that the type of ethnic tourism advertised by successive Panamanian governments ultimately masks class boundaries and limits class solidarity among lower and middle classes by demoting ethnic cultures to inoffensive representations.  When this happens, what occurs at the local level?  I provide the example of the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro to illustrate this argument.


Multicultural Tourism and Ineffective Social Control: The Case of the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro

One such site where ethnic, heritage, and ecological tourism coalesce is the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro, located in the northwestern coast of Panama. It consists of nine islands peopled by approximately 18,000 Afro-Antilleans, indigenous peoples (mostly Ngöbe), Chinese-Panamanians, Panamanian mestizos, and, since the 1990s and as a result of the tourism industry, permanent and semi-permanent expatriates mostly from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.  Similar to the ways in which coastal regions mostly populated by Afro-Latin American and indigenous populations have been constructed as hazardous and unsafe throughout Central America, the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro has long been neglected by successive Panamanian governments, and portrayed as a dangerous, unappealing and unwelcoming place due to its geographic isolation and populations.  Bocas del Toro was (and to certain extent continues to be) a forgotten, unwanted, and unsafe place believed to be nothing more than a wild jungle that was also used as a punishment zone for ill-behaved bureaucrats.

However, the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro experienced an upsurge of tourism in the mid-1990s because of its placement as one of the zones of development in the tourism master plan (Zone 2).   As a result, it attracted national and international tourism, investors, and speculators in large numbers and in a short period of time.

The tourism industry allowed Afro-Antilleans to present and represent identities that were otherwise suppressed within the national context.  Afro-Antillean music and cuisine (resulting from their Pan-Caribbean history) became particularly attractive ethnic commodities for tourism consumption.  Using the world-making power of tourism permitted the transformation of perilous “coastal blacks” into iconic figures of Caribbean beauty: welcoming, tranquil, attractive men and women ready to entertain the tourists’ wishes.  Against the background of state-sponsored ethno-tourism, Afro-Antilleans attempted to enter mainstream Panamanian society on the basis of their unique heritage, a heritage that was once ignored or considered dangerous and unappealing and that has now been commoditized, recreated, and reinvented for touristic purposes.  As a result, Afro-Antilleans have asserted their difference as an ethnic enclave and used their condition as cosmopolitan citizens of the world to claim a re-inscription in the nation as lawful citizens of Panama.  These new representations, however, have not destabilized the social hierarchies present in Panama, and as is the case in other parts of Latin America, blackness is constructed by national elites to “spice up” the Panamanian melting pot.

Power relationships among state agencies, tourists, tourism providers, and local populations change constantly: thus, exercising power in the context of tourism may be repressive or liberating or both, not only for tourists but also for local populations at different times and in different spaces.  Although my research in Bocas del Toro indicates that Afro-Antillean populations have benefitted to a degree from tourism—both in terms of economic and cultural capital—the state’s limitations in functioning as a social and cultural container are undeniable (Trouillot 2001).  For most Afro-Antilleans, the tourism industry has brought with it not only a greater degree of economic opportunities and infrastructural improvements, but also land speculation, social and economic polarization not present prior to tourism development, corruption, and a series of legal misdeeds.  My research indicates that most Afro-Antilleans of all socio-economic classes and levels of participation in tourism are dissatisfied with the misdeeds that have resulted directly from unregulated tourism.



The perception of safety is essential for tourism growth.  Although scholars and policy-makers worldwide have challenged the often-stated claim of tourism as the world’s peace industry (Goldstone 2001), Panama appropriates the notion of peace and stability as major tourism attractions and uses it as a way to eliminate negative views of the country, regardless of the actual levels of safety and security within its borders.

The governments that followed the 1989 invasion have considered peace as a pre-condition for tourism development.  However, peace has been narrowly defined as “absence of military force.”  Little attention has been paid to the many examples of disorder evident in the Panamanian tourism industry, issues such as relative safety for tourists, protection from petty crimes, or kidnappings.  In this respect, crimes against tourists have been on the rise in recent years and have challenged the official depiction of peacefulness and safety presented in colorful brochures, advertisements and TV commercials.

Even less attention has been paid to the implementation and reinforcement of migration, property, and possessory rights for disenfranchised Panamanians, particularly ethnic minorities, as the case of the Archipelago of Bocas del Toro illustrates. Using the new post-invasion understanding of Panama’s police force, the government’s hand in the Archipelago is experienced less often as overt authoritarian demonstrations of power and more commonly as a covert denial of citizenship rights through the creation of laws that benefit foreign investors and the non-enforcement of governmental policies that advantage local populations.  This is done by dismissing complaints as “disorderly conduct,” allowing illegal land sales or ignoring abuses of tourist visa regulations, and by not supporting local efforts to participate in the tourism industry.

In postcolonial Panama, a myth-making project is unfolding.  This project is in the hands of the tourism industry, nationally and internationally, and the Panamanian state.  The country that was once too dangerous and unappealing to tour is now considered “the best place to visit in 2012” (New York Times January 6, 2012), and among the most desired retirement locations for U.S. citizens.  Bocas del Toro, the region that was both feared and ignored by Panamanians throughout the country, is now one of the most attractive destinations in the nation, the “Galapagos of the 21st century”; the population that had been constructed as dangerous and passive now receives national and international tourists with melodic calypso tunes and savory Caribbean food.

Since the early 1990s, Panamanian elites have promoted images of nationhood that valorize diversity and demilitarized safety, thus ostensibly subverting the ethnic stratification of an earlier time.  Nevertheless, these images remain circumscribed within the tourism realm.  In Panama as elsewhere, racial and ethnic stratification go hand in hand with economic stratification, and there are a very few tangible improvements in the lives of Afro-Antilleans, indigenous peoples, and members of the lower socio-economic classes resulting from tourism development.


[i] This article is drawn from: Multicultural Tourism, De-Militarization, and the Process of Peace-Building in Panama.  Special Issue Tourism and Social Control in the Americas, Derrick Hodge and Walter Little, editors.  Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 19(3):418-440, 2014. Copyright 2014 © by the American Anthropological Association, distributed by Willey Publishers. DOI: 10.1111/jlca.12103. Willey Online Library

[ii] Immediately after the US invasion, Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) were disbanded.

[iii] Traditionally, the two main contributors to the GDP of the country have been the Panama Canal and banana production.

[iv]  In a population of 3,516,820 inhabitants (Censos Nacionales 2010), there are eight indigenous groups, and at least two distinct Afro-Panamanian groups.  There are also Panamanian Latinos, Asian Panamanians, and rural and urban mestizo groups.


Babb, Florence (2011) The Tourism Encounter: Fashioning Latin American Nations and Histories. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Censos Nacionales de Panama (2010) Censos Nacionales de Panamá 2010: XI de Población y VII de Vivienda. Accessed January 26, 2012.

Gandásegui, Marco (1993) Las Clases Sociales en Panamá: Grupos Humanos, Clases Medias, Elites y Oligarquía.  Panamá: CELA.  

Goldstone, Patricia (2001) Making the World Safe for Tourism.  New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Guerrón Montero, Carla (2015) Building “The Way”: Creating a Successful Tourism Brand for Panama and its Consequences.  In Tourism in Latin America: Cases of Success, editors Alexandre Panosso Netto and Luiz Gonzaga Godoi Trigo. New York: Springer, pp. 191-205

New York Times (2012) “The 45 Places to Go in 2012.” The New York Times (Travel Section), January 6, 2012.

Available at: [Accessed March 10, 2012]

Sánchez, Peter M. (2002) “The End of Hegemony? Panama and the United States. International Journal on World Peace 19(3):57-89.

Sánchez, Peter M. and Kathleen Adams (2008) “The Janus-Faced Character of Tourism in Cuba.” Annals of Tourism Research 35(1):27-46.

Trouillot, Michel-Roph (2001) “The Anthropology of the State in the Age of Globalization: Close Encounters of the Deceptive Kind.” Current Anthropology 42(1):125-138.  


About Author(s)

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Carla Guerrón Montero
Carla Guerrón Montero is a cultural and applied anthropologist trained in the United States and Latin America, and specialized in the African diaspora, the anthropology of tourism and the anthropology of food (Panama, Ecuador, Grenada, Brazil). She is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program at the University of Delaware. Dr. Guerrón Montero has published a book (The Color of the Panela: Study of Afro-Ecuadorian Women in the Afro-Ecuadorian Andes), edited a book, and published extensively in English, Spanish, and Portuguese in professional journals and edited volumes. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript on the construction of Afro-Antillean identities in the context of the Panamanian tourism industry.