On Dec. 31, the Panama Canal was transferred to the government of Panama in compliance with the Carter-Torrijos Treaty, and the last U.S. soldier left the former Canal Zone. As the canal's deputy administrator for nearly five years, I had a unique opportunity not only to be involved in the planning and execution of its transfer, but also to develop a good sense of what the future holds for the facility and its new owners.

I see a future full of promise for Panama and opportunity for U.S. and international businesses. Unfortunately, too many are looking at that future through eyes filled with nostalgia, skepticism or fear, and thus may not be prepared for the opportunities when they come.The nostalgia is understandable; the other two, however, are unfounded. In any event, it is time to move beyond those attitudes and look at Panama from the perspective of a new relationship. It is time to pursue the opportunities this transfer and the transfer of the military bases present.

In Panama, U.S. ingenuity and drive created an engineering wonder of the world, and in the process conquered such diseases as malaria, yellow fever and typhoid. The canal's 85 years of efficient operation served to knock down international barriers through the exchange of commerce. And generations of American families lived and served in the former Canal Zone in an almost utopian-like society.

But we cannot live in the past. We need to duly record and even honor it, but then learn from it and look to the future.

Some carry nostalgia to an extreme and are skeptical that Panama will operate the canal efficiently, almost hoping it will go downhill to prove themselves correct. Those who hold such opinions, however, are either unaware of, or choose to ignore, the relevant facts.

For example, for several years the canal work force has been more than 90 percent Panamanian; it was 98 percent at the time of the transfer. For all practical purposes the operation, maintenance and management of the canal have been in their hands for several years - and during that time they have proven themselves capable.

Moreover, the government of Panama has put in place a legal framework that does a good job of insulating the entity that operates it, the Panama Canal Authority, from political interference. And the various political parties have made public pledges of nonpartisanship when it comes to the canal and its future.

In my view, there is every reason to give Panama the benefit of any doubt and expect it to operate the canal at least as well as the United States did.

The time and energy of too many people have been spent in trying to allay the fears of those who have been aroused to action by allegations that the ''Red Chinese'' have taken over control of the canal.

Suffice it to say that those allegations are completely unfounded. The Chinese have nothing to do with canal operations, and the constitution and laws of Panama would not permit any such outside control.

The playing field between Panama and the United States has now leveled, and it's time for U.S. businesses in particular to get into the game.

Tourism, especially ecotourism, is one area of great opportunity. When many in the United States think of ecotourism, they think of Costa Rica. Panama, however, has far more to offer in that regard than Costa Rica does.

Moreover, Panama's unique and diverse ecosystems are situated in close proximity to metropolitan Panama City, not hours away by bus or car. Add to that the wonder of the canal, and a vacation of a lifetime is waiting.

With billions of dollars of property from former U.S. military installations now available for alternative economic uses, there also are many opportunities for investment in real property that can be developed for a variety of purposes.

Finally, the canal is approaching maximum capacity, yet long-term traffic forecasts predict that the number of ships using it could double in the next 40 years, and that the amount of cargo they carry could quadruple. Thus, average ship size will also increase.

Panama's goal of becoming the Singapore of the Americas will only be realized if it expands the canal to capture this potential additional market, and that will require several billion dollars of investment in a variety of areas. The planning for this expansion is well under way and the execution of those plans will present significant commercial opportunities for a wide array of businesses.

The United States left a great legacy in Panama as a result of its construction and operation of the canal. That legacy began at the turn of the last century with bold action by a chief executive - President Theodore Roosevelt.

As another century begins, new opportunities now await bold action by this generation of business executives. Hopefully, they will be as successful as he was.