Contributed by: Don Winner(Source) By MARTELLA MATHEWS, Business Desk - Offering the shortest distance geographically for the transshipment of goods from Asia to the Eastern Seaboard and the Caribbean, Panama presents a variety of opportunities for Bahamian businesses currently exploring economic prospects in China and the Far East. It is these potential business opportunities and others in Central and Latin America that are fueling the 30-member Bahamian contingent currently in Panama, on the first ever Bahamas/Panama Trade Mission. The Trade Mission was conceived by the Ministry of Tourism, who saw it as a perfect opportunity to find another market for potential visitors to The Bahamas, and to further diversify the Baham-ian economy. The contingent is comprised of Ministry of Tourism officials, the executive board of The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and select members of the Chamber. According to Valery Brown-Alce, regional deputy director for the US in the Ministry of Tourism, this mission is expected to serve as an excellent launching pad for the development of a leisure travel market from Latin America to The Bahamas, while simultaneously opening up new opportunities for Bahamian entrepreneurs. "We're in the business of economics, we're not just in the business of tourism," she said. "And this (trade mission) provides a much greater platform for us to launch a path in terms of economic development, because when you look at the whole trade aspect, you must have a balance between what we do from a leisure side as well as what we do from the business side."
While it is not expected that the economic ties or the leisure travel offering be-tween The Bahamas and Pan-ama will take-off over-night, already, the Ministry of Tourism has launched in-depth research into the travel practices of Panamanians, as a first step in developing a strategy for making inroads into their burgeoning economy.
The five-day Trade Mission began with a visit on Tuesday to the hub of commerce in The Americas, Zona Libre de Colon (The Free Trade Zone). Located near the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal and two hours outside Panama City, the Free Trade Zone serves as the gateway for transporting products from Asia to the Eastern Sea-board, Latin America and the Caribbean.
On a weekly basis, business interactions within the Zone occur among over 140 different countries. Total imports and exports within the Zone total just under $10 billion, providing the central government of Panama with close to $500 million in revenues annually.
Executive Director of The Bahamas Chamber of Commerce, Philip Simon is impressed with the opportunities presented by the Free Trade Zone for Bahamian businesses, and he has high expectations of the visit.
"We had a couple of different goals," he said in an interview immediately after the conclusion of his meeting with the Free Trade Zone Association. "The Chamber of Commerce was really seeking to meet and develop ties with the Colon Free Trade Association - as well as with the Panamanian Chamber of Commerce - similar to what we did in the past with India and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce, as well as the memorandum of understanding we executed with the Trade Bureau of the People's Republic of China."
Mr Simon hopes that after seeing the gigantic operation that is the Free Trade Zone, the awareness of what is possible will inspire local business people to explore economic opportunities within and outside the country from a variety of perspectives.
"I think there is opportunity for entrepreneurs to look outside the boundaries of just the Caribbean into what represents a huge market, Latin America," he said. "And this can be facilitated in a lot of different ways - not just in terms of products but in the delivery of services or the facilitation of products being delivered."
According to the Chamber executive, he hopes this mission will serve as the beginning of an evolution for the Bahamian economy. "What you see at the Free Zone represents a type of thinking that really should have been developed a very long time ago in Grand Bahama," Mr Simon said. "But everything has its own time and maybe the time has come for us to realise the comparative advantage of location, location, location."
The Trade Mission continues with a meeting on Wednesday with members of the Panamanian Chamber of Commerce, followed by one-on-one interviews between members of both chambers. On Thursday, the group will tour the historical Panama Canal.