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Canoe man case gives unlikely boost to Panama's tourism

John Bingham  Dec 27, 2009

He defrauded his insurers and betrayed his family, but John Darwin, the “canoe man” fraudster, has bequeathed the tourism industry in Panama a surprise boost.

A so-called “Darwin effect” has sparked increased interest in the Central American country as a “hideaway” destination, according to industry experts.

Revelations about how John Darwin, of Seaton Carew, Teesside, faked his own death in a canoe accident to start a new life in Panama, aided and abetted by his wife Anne, is helping fuel new fascination with the country, it is claimed.

Pictures of the couple enjoying the sunshine in Panama City or exploring the lush seafront plot they hoped to turn into an ecotourism resort inadvertently helped promote the country’s attractions to a new audience, it is thought.

The scam fell apart two years ago when John Darwin walked into a police station in London claiming to have lost his memory. The couple were jailed for more than six years for a £250,000 pensions and insurance fraud last year.

Such has been the interest in Panama generated by the case that the publishers of one of the main English language guides to the country ordered a second edition to be printed this year, following a spike in sales.

One holiday company, Journey Latin America, even offered a tailored “Darwin” tour recently, taking in some of the attractions highlighted by the case.

Despite the global economic downturn, Panama’s tourism sector appears to have defied with a steady rise in visitor numbers this year. While other destinations have suffered, visitor numbers were up just over three per cent in the first quarter of this year.

In a country where the tourism industry has long been dominated by American visitors – a result of historical links to the Panama Canal – new operators have also begun marketing it as a destination for British customers.

Sarah Woods, a freelance journalist and author of the Bradt Travel Guide to Panama, said the case had undoubtedly sparked new interest in the country.

“It has given it a certain notoriety but more than anything it sounded to people likely somewhere incredibly exotic, a type of utopia where you could just disappear on very little money and live the life of Reilly,” she said.

“People have been saying to me ‘Is it really possible that you could have disappeared there? Would it have happened, if they (the Darwins) had not been stupid, could they have disappeared there?’

“There was that curiosity.”

She added: “The book would not have got a second edition if sales had not been good, at the moment the publishing industry is on its knees.

“That is an indication that interest is on the up, and the number of tour companies offering tours is also on the up.”

Canoe man case gives unlikely boost to Panama's tourism
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