Spotlight on Panama City, Central America's New Darling

There is no mistaking Panama City's transformation into a modern metropolis. Luxury high-rise apartment buildings jostle for space -- and an ocean view -- with sleek corporate towers and a slew of new luxury hotel projects. The catalyst? The $5.25 billion Panama Canal expansion currently under way, which is slated for completion in 2014, when the canal marks its 100th birthday.

Staking a first-in claim to this new luxury destination is the 369-room Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower, the Trump Hotel Collection's first international property, which days ago celebrated its first anniversary. With its unique ship's sail design, the 70-story steel and glass building on Panama Bay, along Punta Pacifica,
features 48,000 square feet of function space, four restaurants, five pools, an enormous casino, a full brigade of pricey boutiques, a soon-to-open full-service spa and its own private island for groups. The property has set an impossibly high bar for its competitors, which have quickly lined up for a slice of this new luxury market.

According to Smith Travel Research, 5,000 new hotel rooms are under construction in Panama, with another 1,000 expected to break ground next year. "Panama currently accounts for more than half of the total pipeline in Central and South America at different stages of development," says Elizabeth Randall, managing director at STR Global. "Our data shows that in 2012 and 2013, Panama City will continue to grow its room supply by another 29.5 percent and 17.3 percent, respectively."

In May of this year, the 1,400-room Hard Rock Hotel Megapolis opened its first 500 rooms, with the remainder scheduled for year's end. Scheduled to open next month is the 304-room Royal Sonesta Hotel & Casino Panama. However, not until 2013, which will see the debut of the 130-room Waldorf Astoria Panama and a Ritz-Carlton property (for which details remain scant), will the Trump Ocean Club have any serious competition. The hotel's management, including some Ritz-Carlton alumni from destinations like Las Vegas and Barcelona, Spain, isn't running scared at all. "Being the first luxury product in a new destination gives you a distinct advantage," says Thierry Baurez, director of sales and marketing. "Everyone has said that we have set a new standard for luxury in Panama. Other buildings are already copying our sailboat design, which says a lot about how people are looking to us to lead the way."

And leading the way they are. If this hotel is any indication of what the Trump Hotel Collection has in mind for future development, I can't wait to see more.