Somewhere back in high school, I wandered into a new store in downtown Princeton that displayed, in the front window, it’s plethora of harmonicas. Behind the counter was an old man with dreadlocks who introduced himself as Macbeth. He let me try some of the harmonicas and then, when asked, said the price of each was four digits long. $11.99 I wondered? But he actually meant upwards of $1,000. Macbeth had said this so not to embarrass me, to respect my inability to afford such a musical instrument and for that, I returned to the shop frequently to discuss business and waste time before Hebrew school.
“Why dun’ more people come inside like you?” Macbeth once said to me in one of (what evolved into) our therapeutic sessions. “I dun’ understand,” he said. “Lots of peoples ‘round here got money. These be some nice harmonicas I’s selling. Make some beautiful music, yep they most certainly do.”
I didn’t want to tell him, but at age fifteen I had already figured out what in seventy years of Macbeth had not. No one wants to buy thousand dollar harmonicas. Well, not enough to sustain a business in the high-rent district of Princeton, New Jersey at least.
The question stuck with me for a while. There are pretty specific reasons why, whether in an empty store/restaurant/hotel, “people don’t come here more often.” And sitting on a park bench Sunday afternoon in Casco Viejo – the breeze blowing through the plaza, flowers falling from the trees, and a lovers smooching by the gazebo – I found myself asking, why, if Casco Viejo is so great, don’t more people come to visit?
Casco Viejo is frequented by three main types of visitors. Tour bus tourists (who can be found in groups during the days by the museums, churches, and promenades), guests (staying at one of the four lodging accommodations), and locals (from downtown Panama City visiting for a meal or drink at night). Why don’t more people come to visit Casco Viejo is a question answered more accurately by another question: what people do when they do visit?
To answer this question, I did some research on the most (and least) traveled tourist destinations in the world and came up with a list of common things these cities were graded under as to what people did when they visited (a way of justifying visitor numbers overall). Accordingly, it can be useful to apply each to Casco Viejo as support for the current amount of tourists (or lack thereof) through its doors.
Lodging: Casco Viejo’s accommodations options are extremely limited; countable, in fact, on one hand. There are two hostels, one tiny boutique hotel of three rooms, and us, Los Cuatro Tulipanes apartment rentals. These two low-end and two high-end options offer little in between and are often booked to capacity.
Restaurants: The restaurant scene in Casco Viejo has certainly expanded over the past few years. There still exist the same traditional places we’ve come to know and love (Manolo Caracol, Mostaza, Ego) and a number of new ones have arisen. However, the dining scene still lacks the socioeconomic variety that’s found downtown Panama City where inexpensive (but decent) meals are omnipresent, perhaps keeping away a demographic of tourists.
Nightlife: The nightlife scene in Casco Viejo is emerging, yet still extremely limited. For true options in this market, guests to Panama City are directed into the financial district (not Casco Viejo) where you can find many bars and clubs within the span of a block or two. Casco Viejo’s nightlife establishments also tend to be sophisticated and small (a good thing).
Immigration: While it doesn’t necessarily apply to Casco Viejo specific, Panama’s immigration laws are not too restricting for short-stay vacationers. While everything is terribly unorganized, this shouldn’t be a reason for changes in tourism numbers.
Number of activities: Tours – one of the most-exemplified facets of a tourist destination I found. And in Casco Viejo there exist next to none. If you can track down one of the personal tour guides (there’s no stand or shop to find them) you will enjoy your visit. But other than that, try the audio tours we’ve made here at LCT. There are literally nearly no other options. Haunted tours, boat tours, church tours. These would all work great in Casco Viejo but to date, where it stands in development, Casco Viejo offers few.
Safety: While safety has been improving, there are still issues tourists need to worry about. Compound that with the existing stigma Casco Viejo (and it’s dark alleyways) evokes, and you get concerned tourists hesitant to go places on their own. Locals feel comfortable walking around, but so do they in Harlem. Panama’s special Tourism Police have helped immensely, though gang issues and drug addicts still contribute to the majority of danger in the ‘hood.
Transportation: Something I rarely realize (having a car) is the difficulty of getting a taxi in Casco Viejo at certain times of the day (specifically night time – which harkens back to the negative factors of bars in Casco). Many taxi drivers consider Casco too dangerous to troll around for clients and the government offices bring the bulk of taxistas inside. Busses drop people off at the edge of Casco Viejo, and car rental agencies simply don’t exist. This can be off-putting to a tourist who generally relies on public transportation during their stay.
Shopping: Other than the cheesy touristy shops and a few niche art galleries, shopping in Casco Viejo is sort of non-existent. Well, at least non-existent in the way tourists expect to see boutique clothing shops and bookstores and shops filled with cool antiques. In fact, Panama lacks good shopping in general (with the majority of recommendations being “go to a mall.”) Casco Viejo is a good place to get indigenous art, hawked by locals around the neighborhood.
This is not meant to be a negative piece about Casco Viejo – but rather a reason as to why tourists are not yet coming in masses. In reality, Panama as a whole hasn’t seen mass tourism, but on the small scale of Casco Viejo we are able to monitor it quite closely. Until more options become available (from the list above), tourists can come, look at the buildings and wander aimlessly the streets.