Canopy Family | NBC: Panama sees future in ecotourism

By George Lewis

PANAMA CANAL ZONE, Sept. 4, 1999 — When the U.S. formally hands over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians this December, many of the Americans who run the canal will be departing. But as they make their plans to move elsewhere, Panama is looking for ways to attract other Americans: ecotourists.

THE CANOPY Tower ecolodge is not your average resort and Raul Arias de Para is not your average innkeeper.

“I thought it was a unique and extraordinary view and I thought many people would feel that way too,” says Arias.

“So, I said, ‘Let’s make it into a lodge.’”

The lodge is a strange domed structure that once was a U.S. Air Force radar tower in the middle of the Panamanian rain forest.

Arias transformed it into a hotel, painting it green and yellow and cutting holes in the sides for windows.
The lodge has six rooms at treetop level with a close-up view of rare animals and birds.

From the observation balcony that circles the top of the tower, Arias points out a bird in a nearby tree. He identifies it as a blue cotinga.

“It is a very rare bird people come from all over the world to see it,” he says.

Arias believes the lodge is a unique place for bird watchers and at least one agrees with him.

“Being up in the forest canopy like this is just fantastic,” says Sid England, an environmental planner from the University of California at Davis. “There’s only a few places that you can do that.”

The Panama most American visitors have seen over the years is the one featuring the U.S.-built canal.

But the American era in Panama is ending with the handover of the canal to the Panamanians in December.

Now, Panama is using some of the other U.S. properties to develop its fledgling ecotourism industry.

The School of the Americas, where the U.S. Army trained Latin American military leaders, will soon be known as the Resort of the Americas, and Panama hopes it will be filled with tourists.

Back at the canopy tower, Arias notices something.
“There is a monkey around there.”

Within minutes, a whole group of howler monkeys is jumping from tree to tree, feasting on the leaves.

Where U.S. Air Force technicians once watched for hostile planes, tourists can now watch a different kind of monkey business. Arias says it’s a perfect example of turning swords into plowshares as Panama embarks on a new era.

George Lewis is an NBC News correspondent based in Los Angeles.

Copyright MSNBC, 1999

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