Panama Tocumen: a small airport with big ideas ....
Panama City has no shortage of designer boutiques and glitzy, air-conditioned shopping malls. Indeed, the city is widely (and rightly) recognised as being the leading shopping destination in all Latin America. But beware. Visitors to this beautiful, still unspoilt country shouldn’t automatically by-pass the arrivals shops at Panama Tocumen International airport thinking they will be able pick up cheaper bargains elsewhere.
Panama’s reputation as a tax haven for wealthy ex-pats has helped foster the belief that its downtown shops offer duty-free prices. Now prices are certainly attractive for visitors from high-tax countries, but they are not a world away from US levels, and the Panama City’s big shopping complexes limit true duty-free deals to the cruise ship customers, who have disembarked at nearby ports.
Even the celebrated Colón Free Zone, a vast free trade area at the entrance to the Panama Canal and home to 2,500 companies, is geared more to wholesalers than individual shoppers. The one place you are guaranteed duty-free prices, however, is at Tocumen International, Central America’s largest and busiest international hub, which currently is in the midst of an ambitious $100m expansion and refurbishment programme.
Purchasing in arrivals duty-free at Tocumen International is well worth considering then, especially when it comes to staples such as liquor and tobacco. Inbound allowances are pretty generous too: 500 cigarettes, three litre- bottles of hard liquor and three bottles of perfume per traveller.
What about Tocumen itself? Well, the airport has ambitious expansion plans, but is still a minnow in global terms. It handled over 5 million passengers in 2010, a healthy 6% increase on the previous year. That figure looks set to rise yet further as tourism to Panama continues to grow and resident carrier Copa Airlines expands its fleet of aircraft to cope with increased demand. The airport’s private owners have already completed a $21m terminal expansion project, and a brand new 12-gate terminal (Muelle Norte or “North Pier”) is set to open later this year, doubling passenger capacity to 10 million.
Given the airport’s heady mix of affluent locals and well-heeled tourists, perhaps it is no surprise to learn that at nearly $30 the average amount spent in Tocumen’s duty-free shops is one of the highest in all Latin America. Two big regional duty-free retailers dominate the post-security shopping scene, Grupo Wisa and Motta Internacional, whose stores compete with each other under the names of La Riviera and Attenza Duty Free.
Attenza Duty Free currently has four shops at the airport: a fragrance and cosmetics outlet, a liquor and tobacco store, a watch store and an outlet dedicated to jewellery and writing instruments. Brands travellers will find here include the likes of Carolina Herrera, Cartier and Hugo Boss on the fragrance front; fashion from Ray-Ban, Salvatore Ferragamo and Lacoste; rums from Flor de Caña and Appleton, as well as a wide selection of watches, consumer electronics, crystal and jewellery.
It’s A-list brands aplenty at rival retailer La Riveria, whose six shops at the airport are decked out in an easy-to-spot green livery. Cosmetics brands featured here include Lancôme, Christian Dior, Estée Lauder and Clarins. The wide fragrance offer includes brands such as Issey Miyaki, Jean-Paul Gaultier, Gucci, Calvin Klein among many others.
High-end watches are another strong point for La Riviera and the retailer’s La Hora outlet at the airport stocks a broad selection of famous brands such as Omega, Breitling, Longines, Rado, Movado and Hublot. As for sunglasses, the selection is equally impressive: take your pick from the likes of Bvlgari, DKNY, Emporio Armani, Kenneth Cole, Oakley, Ray-Ban and Tom Ford.
Within La Riveria’s liquor selection blended Scotch whisky is particularly popular locally with brands such as Buchanan’s, Johnnie Walker Black Label and Old Parr to the fore. However, our pick would be to go for some of the excellent rums, which are harder to find outside of the region, such as Botran from Guatemala, or Centenario from neighbouring Costa Rica.
Away from duty-free, the selection of gift shops at Tocumen is pretty limited. In fact, travellers are better off doing this type of shopping downtown rather than saving it until the last minute. The range of bars and restaurants used to be very basic at the airport too, but the opening of a 1,400 square metre food court in the departures lounge earlier this year has certainly improved the dining options. Newly opened eateries include the ubiquitous Domino’s Pizza, US bakery chain Cinnabon, fried chicken joint Chester’s Pollos and Japanese fast food outlet Teriyaki.
The big news at Tocumen though has to be the imminent opening of the $75m North Pier in October this year. It will add some 21,000 square metres of space to the airport, including a considerable amount of new retail space (details of the new shops are still under wraps). It is the biggest expansion at the airport since it opened in the 1940s, and from a passenger’s viewpoint, it will mean a big step up in terms of service and facilities.
Amen to that, we say.