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Robert Trigaux: At long last, Tampa Bay nabs a direct toehold in Latin America

Published Jul. 18, 2013

Finally, Tampa Bay may be opening a long-locked economic door to Latin America with Wednesday's announcement that Copa Airlines will offer direct flights to its major Panama City hub.

A clearly enthusiastic Pinellas County tourism chief D.T. Minich called it "the biggest thing to happen in 20 years." Let's hope he's right. It's certainly a first toehold with a Central American airline and key airport hub that provides connections to all of South America.

That hard won opportunity alone is well worth celebrating — as long as we acknowledge the Tampa Bay market has a lot of work ahead to raise its profile to the fast-rising Latin world.

Remember that area tourism officials spent the past year analyzing how to revamp this region's bland brand, especially when compared with Miami and Orlando whose airports already serve up dozens of direct flights to Latin America. Pitching a fresh Tampa Bay brand began this summer.

Just as competition for international routes grows more fierce, second-tier markets like Tampa Bay insist they need more foreign direct flights to remain players in the global economy and tap tourism and trade markets.

There's little time to waste. Copa starts flying out of Tampa International in December and the initial contract lasts just one year.

To solidify Copa's commitment, TIA and area chambers of commerce and tourism agencies are committing more than $1 million in airport waivers, marketing dollars and in-kind contributions. By February, the Tampa/Hillsborough EDC will start leading trade and business delegations to Panama.

I asked the folks at Gerdau, a Brazilian steel giant whose North American "long steel" division is run from Tampa, whether Copa flights will be game changers. Gerdau managers here often fly to their Brazilian HQ in Porto Alegre, and the steelmaker recently finished a major steel project to help expand the Panama Canal. Gerdau's Tampa executives also were among area business leaders to visit Copa in Panama two years ago to pitch direct flights to TIA.

"We feel this is a great first step to improving flights, and hopefully will lead to more flights direct to Brazil," says Gerdau spokeswoman Kim Selph. Just don't expect Brazil-bound Gerdau managers to suddenly switch to Copa. Some fly to Brazil via Orlando or Miami. Selph prefers flying Continental Airlines, which takes her through the airline's hub in Houston.

One clear beneficiary of direct flights to Panama City will be University of South Florida executive Deborah Sutherland and others who help run the USF Health International Foundation, based in Panama.

One thing seems clear. TIA has hitched itself to a strong partner. Copa Holdings is a 66-year-old publicly traded company with 8,000 employees and a market value bigger than Raymond James Financial. A $76 stock a year ago, Copa shares closed Wednesday at $138.23.

"This changes the business model of our community," argues Maryann Ferenc, co-owner of Tampa's Mise en Place restaurant and longtime leader in Florida tourism circles. "This changes the conversation and let's us be at the table of international growth."

Are we ready for takeoff?

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

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