Interview

Rob Harper: Central America offers new horizons for every traveller type

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November 22, 2019

We catch up with Rob Harper, co-owner and Director of Business Development of Central America’s Namu Travel Group to talk about the hot trends, growth destinations and new experiences driving the region’s growing popularity.

Rob Harper

Namu Travel is a luxury travel agency offering personalised, boutique luxury holiday experiences in six countries across Central America. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Rob first migrated to Costa Rica in 2004 before settling in Panama City in 2007.

Have you seen increased demand to visit Central America in the past few years?

We’ve seen demand increase for the last several years. We’re not doubling our business every year, but we’re seeing consistent, steady growth. We think there are a number of different reasons for this growth. It’s never been easier to get to Central America from the USA, to start with. Our US clients don’t really want to do connecting flights and we’re blessed in Panama City to have direct flights from cities all over the states.

Panama is the hub and entry point for Central America. From here you can catch connecting flights to Bogota in Colombia and Costa Rica. We’ve seen a similar increase from Europe too, with direct flights from London to Costa Rica and flights from other major European capitals increasing all the time.

Winters in the last few years in the states have been brutally cold, so for clients in the US it’s a relatively short hop to enjoy the higher temperatures of Central America. A lot of new products, experiences and hotels have come online recently, and hurricane seasons in the Caribbean have been very rough recently, so that has helped us too.

Tourist trends here tend to follow the economic trends of European and American markets. We saw very steady and healthy growth up until 2008 for example, when the world financial crash kicked in and the market struggled for a couple of years. Since 2010 we’ve seen a return to steady and consistent growth as economies have stabilised. If you look at WTO data, you see that more people are travelling pretty much everywhere in greater numbers.

What destinations or experiences in Central America are becoming more popular?

The two growth destinations are Panama and Colombia. These haven’t traditionally been popular destinations, but they’ve been really trending in the last two years. The tourism boards for these countries have done some great marketing, which may have contributed. If you look at the recent history of Panama and Colombia, it’s taken quite a long time for travellers to realise these countries are now stable and safe. It’s been about timing with those destinations.

Nicaragua, photo credit: luxurytravelmagazine.com

In the first half of last year, Nicaragua was really trending. It’s a beautiful, unique country and it’s very close to the United States, but interest fell off in the second half of last year due to the political unrest in the country. Costa Rica is a more mainstream, mature destination that’s been established for a long time and shows consistent numbers. We have clients who love the tropics who come back again and again.

What ‘hidden gems’ do you recommend to clients visiting Central America for the first time?

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula is an undiscovered paradise. At the southern end of its Pacific coast, the peninsula is one of the country’s most remote destinations and is largely free of mass tourism. The Corcovado National Park takes up almost half the peninsula and is home to an astoundingly diverse range of wildlife, including giant anteaters, tapirs, harpy eagles and jaguars. For a few months of the year, it’s also a perfect spot for whale watching.

Costa Rica really ‘owns’ eco-tourism, and the quintessential luxury experience on the Osa Peninsula is Playa Cativo Lodge. It’s a totally eco-sensitive development surrounded by jungle and in complete harmony with its spectacular surroundings. It has less than 40 rooms with very high-end service, yet it’s only accessible by boat and surrounded by a private 1,000-acre nature reserve within the Piedras Blancas National Park.

Playa Cativo Lodge, Costa Rica

Panama is about history as the oldest European settlement in Central America. Nicaragua is a place for the pioneer traveller, while Colombia is perfect for the off-the-beaten path adventurer.

What themes or trends emerge when your clients ask about Central America?

The overarching theme we see is that people are more interested in doing rather than sightseeing. They want to get hands-on. More people want to acquire a new skill on vacation or give something back – they may want to learn a language, do some volunteering or learn to be yoga teacher. They don’t just want to see Guatemala’s ancient Mayan city of Tikal, the rainforest and the howler monkeys.

They may also want to do something spiritual in some ways. For example, we offer a day trip here in Panama where we pick clients up at midnight and start a five or six-hour hike up Volcan Baru, the tallest mountain in Panama, to catch the sunrise in one of the few places on the planet where you can see two oceans at the same time.

The other universal trend is a much greater interest in local cuisine, ingredients and food. More and more people think of themselves as ‘foodie’ travellers, so we always include unique food spreads in every itinerary. We make a lot more dinner reservations for clients these days at restaurants with taster menus where guests can try out different dishes.

What would surprise us about luxury travel in Central America?

There are seven countries in Central America. They’re mostly small and mostly share borders so you can country-hop in short flights or even drive across some borders, but every time you cross a border the vacation experience totally changes.

It’s hard to comprehend until you come here just how much diversity there is. Each country has tons of wildlife, biodiversity, tropical climates, fresh fruit, cloud forest, amazing coffee and most of them have two long beautiful coastlines. There are similarities in the way they look, but not in the way they feel.

What is the best VIP experience in Central America?

A lot of it is about private transportation, which gives you the luxury to go anywhere you choose. If you start with a private helicopter tour of the Panama Canal, then finish your day with dinner reservations in Panama’s old town at Donde José, the city’s hottest reservation, that would be a pretty special day.

A unique experience in Guatemala would be to start your morning with sunrise amongst the Mayan ruins in Tikal, then take a private helicopter to Lake Atitlán in the Sierra Madre mountain range for lunch at boutique luxury hotel Casa Palopo. Then take your private helicopter to Antigua Guatemala for a walking tour and dinner at Meson Panza Verde, another boutique hotel with one of the best restaurants in Guatemala.

Tikal, Guatemala

Sailing for a few days around Panama’s San Blas Islands and finishing your trip in Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, would be another pretty amazing experience.

What is the height of luxury in Central America?

We design vacations in our company, we don’t just grab stuff and put it together. We’re like an online dating service and it’s our job to match a luxury experience to the traveller. Everybody’s different, so it’s about what the traveller thinks is a luxury experience.

The Four Seasons in Costa Rica, for example, is a beautiful property that’s the height of opulent luxury, but ‘barefoot’ luxury travellers would much prefer to hire a private island all to themselves, with nothing like the same level of comfort.

Four Seasons, Costa Rica Peninsula Papagayo

There’s a spectacular high-end property called Villa Manzu in Costa Rica, where Kim Kardashian recently stayed. It’s an eight-suite, five-acre estate on its own isolated peninsula, complete with swimming pools, spa, cinema room and a full staff including chefs, drivers, domestic staff and concierge.

Villa Manzu, Costa Rica

For a less expensive and totally different luxury experience you can choose Sweet Bocas, a private island on Panama’s Caribbean coast that you can book for your exclusive use. It has a real ‘barefoot luxury’ vibe, sitting on stilts above the water like you’d expect to see in Fiji.

Sweet Bocas, Panama

What does luxury mean to you?

Luxury means matching the sense of comfort and richness to someone’s travel personality, and that’s different for every human being.

My personal idea of luxury would be a boutique experience off the beaten path. Somewhere like Kasiiya, a beautiful luxury tent camp surrounded by tropical forest and a few yards from the sea, on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. I’d much rather do that than visit a big-name resort.

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