Panama: a look at the present and beyond

April 26, 2010

Panama is a small country consisting of an area equal to almost half the size of the state of Florida. Its population is the smallest of all Spanish-speaking Latin American countries at just over 3.3 million, but despite its small size and population, the progression and positioning of this tiny isthmus nation in the last decade has been undeniable.

Panama's transformation started at the turn of the century with one of the largest real estate deals of recent history, namely the turn over of The Panama Canal and Canal Zone from US control to the stewardship of the Panamanians which was concluded in December of 1999.

The Canal Zone is generally considered to include 5 miles on either side of the famous ditch which cuts Panama in half, excluding the Cities of Panama and Colon. This real estate transaction totaled nearly 1500 km2 and included over a dozen military bases, more than 20 townships and the Panama Canal itself along with all the associated infrastructure in the form of hospitals, airports, a golf course, banks, bowling allies, office buildings, commissaries, tens of thousands of residential properties and everything in between. The value of said assets climbed easily into billions of dollars and provided an impressive platform from which Panama has been able to successfully position its launch.

For those of you that have been following the progression of Panama, you are likely already familiar with the largest of the developments currently underway: the expansion of the Panama Canal.

The Canal Expansion broke ground September 3rd of 2007 and nearly 3 years later is ahead of schedule and under its allotted 5.25 billion dollar budget. The Panama Canal Authority (ACP) estimates that during the next 20 years, cargo volume transiting the Canal will grow at an average of three percent per year, doubling 2005's tonnage by the year 2025. As such, providing the Canal with the capacity to transit larger vessels will make it more efficient by allowing the transit of higher cargo volumes with relatively fewer transits and less water usage. Along the way, between 35,000 to 40,000 new jobs will have been created and the legacy of the Panama Canal will be protected as a relevant and important shipping route for decades to come.

Another impressive though less touted development currently underway is that of Panama Pacifico. Panama Pacifico is a demographic changing project in terms of total area and size of investment, second only to the Panama Canal Expansion. It is situated on the former Howard Air force Base which became a special economic area, with the passage of Law 41 in 2004, Panama created Panama Pacifico as a special economic zone (or ‘free zone’). Special benefits are granted to all companies relocating to the area including legal, customs, immigration and labor benefits, as well as specific fiscal incentives. For some business activities, this means freedom from fiscal taxes in Panama.

In the creation of Panama Pacifico, the Panamanian government realized the opportunity to bring direct foreign investment into the country, and to create new jobs for Panamanians. For these reasons, the government and the Panamanian people welcome the development as a source of new commerce and economic generation.

Panama Pacifico’s size is impressive. At completion, this business center will encompass:

  • 1,400 hectares, with nearly half of the land to remain in its natural state or to be devoted to new parks and open space
  • 1 million square meters of commercial space
  • 20,000 homes
  • 40,000 new jobs
  • Retail centers and hotels
  • Schools
  • Places of worship
  • Parks and recreational amenities
  • A championship golf course (Greg Norman Design)

The first phase of the International Business Park has already been completed and has offices available for occupancy. To date, such corporations as Dell, Caterpillar and 3M are either established or in the process of establishing offices in Panama Pacifico.

Infrastructure forms a major part of Panama's progression, and among the thousands of kilometers of new and improved roads is the Cinta Costera, or Coastal Belt. The Coastal Belt consists of 35 HA of fill, which was made into a by-pass for the main artery of Avenida Balboa which receives an average of 72,000 cars per day. The construction of the cinta costera cost 189 million USD and from start to finish took only 540 days to complete. The Coastal Belt has resulted in a great alleviation of traffic in Panama's city center, as well as 210,000 m2 of public parks, 7km of sidewalks, 2000 sorely needed parking spaces, and 6 handicap accessible elevated street crossings for pedestrians.


Another significant feat of infrastructure which in part was built in conjunction with the Cinta Costera and is approaching its final phase of construction is the clean up of the Bay of Panama. The project is estimated to cost over 410 Million Dollars and will consist of 7.5 km of tunnels beneath Avenida Balboa and the Cinta Costera. A major facet of the Bay clean up are sub surface drainage basins to capture and control run off waters from the 5 rivers and a water treatment plant to purify the polluted waters of the Juan Diaz river before being released into the bay of Panama. It is said that once this 10 year project has been completed,it will be possible to use the Bay of Panama for touristic purposes.

There is also a green side to Panama's progression. This includes 16 natural parks which encompass 25% of the isthmus nation which is equivalent to approximately 5 Million Acres. Two of these parks are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites. These Natural Parks are home to 220 different types of mammals, 354 reptiles and amphibians, including 125 animal species that are unique to Panama. There are nearly 1000 recorded bird species, at least 1200 varieties of orchids, 1500 types of trees and at least 687 ferns.

A few of Panama's most significant national parks include:
  1. The Darien National park (576,000 HA) which is the largest of Panama's Reserves and also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
  2. La Amistad International Park (407,000 HA) which forms the border between Panama and Costa Rica and is also a World Heritage site as well as home to 3 indigenous Indian groups.
  3. Coiba Island National Park (270,125 HA), which is a marine park with about 240 kilometers of coast line. It is an important route for whale immigration and home to the world famous fishing spot by the name of Hanibal Bank.
  4. Bastimentos Island National Park (13,226 HA) is best known as a nesting area for sea turtles which can be seen from April to October.
  5. Volcan Baru National Park (14,300 HA) which includes the extinct volcano, which forms the highest peak of Panama at nearly 3500 meters above sea level. On clear days its possible to see both the Pacific and Caribbean Oceans.
  6. The Chagres National park (135,000 HA) which also forms the watershed of the Panama Canal, and include the Chagres river which provides about 80% of the water needed to operate the Panama Canal, as well as supplies the drinking water for Panama City.
  7. The Soberania National (22,104 HA) park is best known as a world famous birding location and includes the Las Cruces trail which was the cobblestone trail constructed by the Spanish Explorers to carry their gold fortunes via mule across the isthmus.
  8. The Camino de Cruces National (4,950 HA) park was formed to create an ecological corridor between the Soberania and Metropolitan park.
  9. The Metropolitan National Park (265 HA) is located within the city limits of Panama City, and is often referred to as the Lungs of Panama City.

By focusing on a combination of several important points, infrastructure,tax, and labor incentives for multinational corporations, job creation and preservation of its natural resources, Panama has not only been able to maintain positive economic growth, even during the worst of the global economic recession but it has continued to position itself for continued
growth, development and success in the future.