The Tampa Bay region scored a major opportunity with the new nonstop flights to Panama that Tampa International Airport and area business leaders announced this week. The flights create an opening to expand travel and trade between the bay area and Central and South America. That is critical in this competitive era of liberalized global trade. The deal also is another building block for area leaders working together to build Tampa Bay as a national and international brand.
The Panamanian carrier Copa Airlines will fly four round trips a week beginning in December between Tampa and Panama City. In a partnership with Copa, Tampa is joining hands with one of the world's most modern and fastest growing airlines. Its hub and central location in Panama City gives travelers a gateway into Central and South America and to the Pacific Coast. Regular, nonstop service from Tampa will make it easier and cheaper for travelers on Florida's west coast to access Latin America, ending the need to fly from congested gateways in Orlando or Miami. The route also creates a window for introducing Latin America to the beaches, business climate and cultural amenities across the gulf coast, offering visitors from the Americas an entirely different experience from Central and South Florida.
The deal speaks to what can happen when the region works together. In exchange for flying into Tampa, Copa will receive a half-million-dollar incentive package of airport fee breaks and marketing support. The Pinellas tourism agency, Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, committed $200,000 toward marketing for the first two years and will create a new division devoted to courting the Latin American market. This is the level of cooperation both counties need to show if the bay area hopes to compete with the more familiar global gateways of Miami and Orlando.
Airport director Joe Lopano is delivering on his promise to add international flights, and the dynamism he brings has made the airport a larger player in the region's job development efforts. Copa's one-year deal, though, requires a sustained commitment by the airport and the two counties if the bay area is to establish a firm foothold in Latin America. Visitors need to see both this area's historical ties to Latin America and its modern business climate. And the new flights should embolden local leaders to take on other regional challenges with the same can-do spirit. The Copa deal should do away with the old thinking that there can be only one winner and on one side of the bay. It took a team effort here, and look at the results.