The program called “Tourist Assistants”, is an idea the Minister of Tourism of Panama, Rubén Blades had at the end of the year 2004. He met with a group of youngsters, all of them former gang members from popular areas of Panamá in the Washington Hotel in Colon City. In this meeting he explained his desire to implement a program where they could become tourist assistants after receiving full and complete training.
Once the program was accomplished with the former gang members from the San Felipe area who had been trained in tourism and the history of Panama, good manners, safety rules and basic English during a 6 month period, during which they received a monthly basic payment with the purpose of helping them leave their old habits and start a new and better life.
The program was intended to last 6 months only, but due to the positive response it had, it was extended indefinitely and it is still carried on successfully with about 100 participants.
The program now includes others who are in social risks like university students and high school graduates. This program is also being implemented in other areas of tourist interests like in the highlands, beaches, central provinces and in the International Airport of Tocumen.
After interviewing the assistants in their working environment, we realized they were feeling safe and grateful to the program.
Andrés Beckford, a 28 year old who has been working as a tourist assistant for two years and a half said: “This program has changed my life and the life of my family. My wife was 5 months pregnant and I was unemployed when I was offered this opportunity. In that very moment I felt it was my chance to improve myself. They taught me real values and place in society. Then, they trained me in different areas like basic English, history of the Old Quarter, communication skills, and much more.
José Uno, another 24 year old in the program, mentioned: “People have no idea of how many tourists comes by every day. Thanks to this program, we are able to give them full information about the place and the historical monuments. It would be great that more people could know about us, since most of the tourists, when they get here, already have a tour operator or a guide. We are here in the Old Quarter every day working as a team and there exists great communication between all of us. And the most important fact is that we are being paid for this work and this allows us to stay away from crime and vandalism.
So far, the success of this program has been measured based on the satisfaction of San Felipe residents, tourists, and especially the tourist assistants, who have been able to change their lives. In some cases, tourist assistant services have permanently hired them to work in their business.