Airline to launch Tampa-Panama City flights - FOX 13 News

Airline to launch Tampa-Panama City flights

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TAMPA (FOX 13) -

If a "potential growth market" could be defined with numbers, they might look something like this: a 53 percent increase from 2011 to 2012. But still less than 1.4 percent of the current market share.

That is the 2012 measure of Latin American visitation to Pinellas County last year: Up impressively, but still a tiny sliver of more than 5.4 million visitors. That could change in December when Copa Airlines launches non-stop flights between Panama City and Tampa.

"This is huge for us. This is an absolute game changer in terms of tourism," said Visit St. Pete-Clearwater director D.T. Minich, "We have been wanting a connection to South America and Central America for years, and this just opens up a huge, huge market for us."

Minich's comments came after an unveiling at TIA featuring several officials sporting Panama hats. Copa is one of the world's most profitable air carriers, with connections through Panama City to dozens of South and Central American cities.

"We're going to spread that gospel of Tampa, Florida throughout Central and South America," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn declared. "We are going to be the destination, we are going to be the gateway to the Americas."

TIA chief executive officer Joe Lopano expanded on that vision.

"We're going to become an international gateway," Lopano said, pointing out European non-stop service has already expanded. "We have an amazing master plan ahead of us, a $2.5 billion plan that will take us 30 years into the future."

Tourism officials pursue Latin Americans because they tend to travel as extended families, booking multiple rooms each visit. They are also known to bring extra suitcases and go shopping for American products.

"They'll purchase $2,000 to $3,000 at a time, fill those suitcases up," Countryside Mall's Lauren Clark confirmed. In January, the mall started targeting foreign tourists Clark claimed sales to that market have increased 20 percent. A soccer store recently opened, and the mall now offers a foreign currency exchange kiosk.

VSPC data shows 73,400 Latin Americans visited Pinellas in 2012. That was a 53 percent increase over 2011, but still just 1.36 percent of Pinellas County's 5.43 million tourists. With non-stop service through Panama City, 2014 could be much different.

"We're actually adding a department to Visit St. Pete Clearwater," Minich said. "We're going to have a dedicated department with a director of Latin America sales, we'll have staff in place."

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