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Panama Canal: dream vacation destination?

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(Read caption) Tourists watch a ship pass through the Panama Canal.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

There’s the sound of a ship’s horn and a crackle at the loudspeaker. Then the slightly muffled voice of an announcer begins to welcome visitors lined shoulder to shoulder along one of the balconies at the Panama Canal’s visitor center in Mira Flores, Panama. He rattles off statistics and facts about the canal, the boats, and the amount of water it takes to fill the locks (3 million gallons in eight minutes) with the panache of a baseball-game announcer. Below, a specially trained Panamanian canal pilot carefully navigates a gigantic container ship through the locks with just two feet of clearance on either side.

Tourists can’t seem to get enough of this engineering wonder.

Since the United States returned control of the canal to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999, the number of visitors to Panama has increased dramatically.

The canal has raked in $4.7 billion for Panama since 2000, compared with $1.8 billion between 1914 and 1999 under US administration. The jolt of income has had ripple effects. Everyone from the World Bank to taxi drivers and tour operators has noticed the difference. 

“When the Americans owned the canal, they operated their own tours, there was no need for Panama-owned tourism,” says Miguel Samaniego, owner of Inside Panama Tours. “It was not until 2000 when Panama took over control of the canal that the government started looking for a new source of income. And Panama became a tourist destination.”

After an initial French attempt to build the canal failed at the turn of the 20th century, the canal was completed in 1914 under American control and is now an independent and profitable entity. And it’s poised to expand again.

A $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion project, slated for completion in 2014, is expected to allow larger and more ships to pass through the isthmus and bring in more tourism and more tax revenue.

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