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Panama's Identity Emerging - Newsletter

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Written by Matt   
Monday, 16 November 2009 15:44
They're building a Hard Rock Hotel on a beachfront parcel not far from Panama City. The land and the trees are real, no rx and so is the Hard Rock. It is a real hotel with real bathrooms and real hamburgers served on real plates. But it is amidst realities like these, salve amidst projects like the world's second biggest pool or the third tallest casino, treatment that is surfacing a very unreal aspect of Panamanian growth and progress that, for me, at one point in time, bordered on a taboo level of sterility. Panama would just be better without the bells and whistles, I used to think. Why is Panama developing like this?   The answer of course is time. Time brings progress, it brings change, and it brings new components to the equation whether we like it or not. I find myself wondering sometimes though, is the evolution of Panama the genuine article?  Is it becoming a bona fide destination? Something that people will be drawn for decades to come? Or is it emerging only as an overnight star who's five seconds of fame will come and go like its tide.

Authenticity is a universal longing. Whether we're on vacation or buying real estate or collecting artwork, authenticity is what we want from ourselves, our friends, and the world around us. It was once my belief that Panama too, in order to develop its own personality, its own authenticity, needed to subscribe religiously to one particular mantra and stick with it. It could be the undisputed king of birding for example, or the indigenous capital of the Americas. Specialization and authority: two virtues that transcend the passage of time. But at a crossroads in determining its future, instead of embracing one forte, the Republic is dabbling, like a fat kid at a buffet, in industries never before known to intermingle. International banking, eco-tourism, shipping, real estate, mining, medical tourism, gaming...etc. And somehow, it's working.

It can be romantic if not utopian to envision a country united on one vision. But as Panama is proving it's also possible to create one's own smorgasbord. A niche defined by its non-nicheness. A hodgepodge of industry, cultures, tastes and preferences. Supersizers are relishing various opportunities and while its not music to their ears, what soothes the minds of their opposing purists is that Panama still does nourish pockets of specialty and authenticity. There still are places where classicists can get their fix.
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Panama has any number of things to recommend it, but in retrospect what first hooked me (and what now seems to be evolving as its identity) was its contrasts. I loved that the beaches were close to the cities, and that the indigenous communities sat just miles away from historical sites. I liked the diversity in its socioeconomic levels and climate and culture: this bizarre amalgamation where aspects of life had been seemingly plucked from their natural habitats and slapped together in something resembling a tiny wonderland. The individual parts may not be entirely unique, but as a whole, they make for a sundry and diverse landscape that happens, oddly enough, to be unique in its own sort of collective way.

A friend once worded it best. If Hong Kong and Costa Rica were to have sex, their baby, I presume, would look something like the Republic of Panama will several years down the line. This may just be a new breed of international destinations: the miscellaneous hub of lattés, leatherback turtles, lawyers and laser eye surgery. The country may never become the eco-whiz or sustainable boutique that many people wished for. But with its overarching propensities towards money and satisfaction, I'm pretty sure things could be worse.

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A few words
written by American in Panama , November 16, 2009
I agree with many of your observations though after 4 years living here I still find it hard to get my arms around Panama’s “identity”. I lived over 3 years in Costa Rica before coming here so I think I am qualified to compare those two neighboring countries. I also spend a bit of time in Colombia so I am getting quite a bit of “comparative zeal” in my system. I continue to be amazed how these small countries like Costa Rica and Panama have been able to grab so much of the market share of Latin American tourism. At the same time I think we are seeing a “correction” of those initial tourism spikes and personally I believe we are going to see some redistribution of those tourism dollars and bodies. To that end I am nervous to see many of these Panamanian projects both residential and touristic going up simultaneously. I just don’t see the numbers now or in the near future to sustain and support these ventures. I often times have given these investors the “benefit of the doubt” that they know something I don’t about future market prospective…but I am now beginning to think many are using a “Field of Dreams” approach to Panama investment, like many failed investors have done in Costa Rica in the last wave there.



While I agree that Panama has many wonders and variety of experiences that you allude to, I don’t see at all the infrastructure and service levels to support experiencing Panama on a first world basis yet. Sure, the city has much better infrastructure than Costa Rica or most any Central American or Caribbean destination, but the interior is…well, just that…the almost hidden interior. There are no truly world class white sand beaches on the mainland…unless you believe all the touched up Photoshop photos you see in most tourism publicity. If you go to the islands where most of those white sand beaches are, the infrastructure, hotels and overall service mentality is just not there…and I don’t expect to see it at any mass level for another 40-50 years. Maybe in this case I am tainted by over exposure to the poor service mentality in Panama, but I am quite convinced this Caribbean style culture is more like the Bahamas than Bermuda or the Caymans. I see it very similar to the Dominican Republic. The mass poverty in Panama’s population, lack of quality education and high levels of government corruption keeps these places in the dark ages generation after generation. Sure, there are some “mecca” resorts of four or five star quality that are fenced in and provide acceptable levels of service…but you pay more for that in these countries than you would in the USA (Florida for example) or even some European resort destinations. While there is an initial allure for North Americans and Europeans to come to Latin America or the Caribbean, the majority are not repeat visitors, and in this internet age I am afraid the truth of these things gets out and affects markets faster than the old “word of mouth” used to take.
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A few words...con't
written by American in Panama , November 16, 2009
Because you and I have lived here for a while and have many friends and contacts both social and business, I think it is hard for us to be objective about what Panama offers. I find myself pursuing hard and honest feedback from first time or occasional visitors these days and I am not sure the response I am seeing supports the residential and touristic developments that are going up or being considered. The most positive feedback I hear about Panama is the city and the canal. Sure, some people love nature and the basics of mountainous Boquete or laid back water life of Bocas del Toro…but most of the MONEYED tourists are looking for 5 star resort treatment at a 3 star price and I happen to believe the norm is the opposite of that. If that doesn’t change soon, I believe there will be continued reduction in the level of high end moneyed tourists coming to Panama which will significantly skew future expectations in this market .



I do believe the current administration is trying to do some quick facelifts to the country for tourism and business reasons, but I am not seeing the general populace getting behind many of these endeavors. The taxi and mass transit system is atrocious and I think it is going to take a long time to change the taxi system to a more sustainable, service oriented one. You need to change the core values of the taxistas in order to really accomplish that and I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. The mass transit system they are pursuing is laudable, but I’m not sure it will be something comfortable for the average tourist or foreign business person to use. It will be overrun with locals living on $200-300 per month and I don’t see that mixing well with most higher end tourists coming in. Upper society Latinos never take public transportation anyways.



As you say, the contrasts of Panama are attractive to many of us…yet I also think those contrasts cause a lack of confidence and trust in the accidental tourist. You have the canal but no truly great mainland beaches. You have a modernizing airport but still only one restaurant there (one star) and double taxes and highest priced tickets in the region compared to other destinations. You have nice new 4-5 star hotels with 2-3 star service mentality. You have a lot of “Singaporian” high rises everywhere that look impressive from the outside, but closing punch lists of the few new owners are a mile long with the most basic of complaints (poorly laid tiles, cracks in the new walls, cheap doors and finish work). I guess I look at it like the “white washing” of an old picket fence. It looks nice for a little while, but it is still an old picket fence that will soon show it’s quality.
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A few words...con't
written by American in Panama , November 16, 2009
The few family members and close friends who have visited me here have had a good time…but most of them have said if I hadn’t been here to show them the “inside” views and places to go, they never would have found them or felt comfortable here. Publicity and advertising is abysmal for events or places of interest. You have to be an “insider” to really know what’s going on here. Most see the stark poverty against the modern skyscrapers and feel uncomfortable by the contrast. It is like going to Disneyland and seeing the future, but not knowing or believing if it is real or not. In many projects I feel that is just what they are promoting…”Disneyland”.

The biggest concern I have for Panama is its dependency on the USA and the dollar, both for protection of the canal and of its currency. If the dollar continues weakening, it will be very costly to buy foreign goods here…and since Panama produces very little besides agricultural goods…they are significantly dependent on imports which has been the cause of more significant inflation than this government has seen fit to admit. And now we have the threat of changing Panama’s traditional banking and corporate laws to reflect the desire of the world’s high tax states to bring down the competitive status of Panama’s financial sector. This is the biggest threat to the financial underpinnings of Panama’s banks and core economic system. I hope this little country is able to withstand the pressures, but the story is definitely still out on that one. If Switzerland couldn’t, how can Panama?

I guess I’ll wrap this up before it turns into a book, but as you can see, my image of Panama as one of “contrasts” and “authenticity” has a little more bite to it than your perspective. I actually like your outlook better…and I hope it succeeds over my own growingly pessimistic viewpoints.
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Stephen Lewis
Speaking from experience
written by LewDog , November 17, 2009
The Panama Express has come to a screaming halt. When I first moved here I was on cloud nine, dreaming up opportunities that I could create for myself in this country. I would tell all of my friends in the States, "if you can dream it up, you can do it in Panama." Now that statement couldn't feel further from reality. Wally World is closed. I feel like I have been duped by the revolving door that exists in the PTY airport. Maybe I am young and naive.

I, like many others, bought into the Panama dream with hopes and aspirations. A new start! A clean slate to be whomever I wanted to be. Panama was the perfect match for my educational background. I love to cook food, speak Spanish, play soccer, swim, explore, and teach. Being a young person, I believed that living in a developing nation would bring me opportunities beyond my wildest dreams, and for years to come. I would get to be part of something new and exciting. I could live in the matrix. I would be able to open doors for people that come behind me, and have a unique career. I wanted to know secrets. I wanted to work my ass off.

It all began after a couple of amazing world-wind trips to Panama. Visiting places like Barro Colorado, El Valle, Boquete, Bocas Del Toro, Coronado, Las Tablas, Pedasi, Cambutal, Pixvae, and beyond; I was hooked. The natural beauty of these destinations was enough to keep me here looking for more. I have lived in other countries before, but what kept me here was it's geographical positioning, it's prices, and the for-mentioned. I am close enough to go home for holidays and emergencies, but far enough away (and well hidden), to keep my personal life the way I like it (private).

I was introduced to some people in Panama to help me get on my feet and make sure that I had some money coming in to survive this quest. I endured the process of building a business in Panama for 6 months, with little to no help from my "partners." Before I even opened, one partner bailed out because he wanted the biggest piece of the pie, before it was even baked in the oven, for doing the least amount of work. I was left with an inexperienced partner who only knows how to spend money, not make money. I ran on this treadmill for six months before his ego took over the business, forcing me to sell my share. At this moment (less than 6 months later), the business no longer exists.


"No problem." I said to myself. "Minor setback." I kept on telling myself that it was a learning experience, but really it made me feel sad and bitter. I couldn't believe how hard I had worked and how quickly it all unraveled. I made something here that shimmered, and so quickly it was laid to rest.

Having a Panamanian on the inside is the best way to get things done in Panama aside from being independently wealthy. Finding a trustworthy and educated person to be your insider is like finding a needle in a haystack. This country is building itself on unfulfilled promises and it's future is looking bleak. There are too many people looking for handouts, and nobody wanting to get dirty for the greater good. The exploitation of this beautiful country is rampant. The non-transparent business practices are childish.
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Contrast
written by Casco Viejo Panama , November 18, 2009
Matt,

Great article. I, too am attracted to Panama by its contrasts. One great example is Panama's historic district of Casco Viejo where I live and spend most of my time. Gorgeously renovated colonial architecture buildings sit side-by-side the decrypt ones. And, some of Panama's wealthy and most famous residence live shoulder-to-shoulder amongst the poorest. But, the contrast of Casco is what brought me to it, and keeps me staying.


~ Evan
http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com/
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Casco Viejo Panama's Contrasts
written by Evan , November 18, 2009
Matt,

Great article. I, too am attracted to Panama by its contrasts. One great example is Panama's historic district of Casco Viejo where I live and spend most of my time. Gorgeously renovated colonial architecture buildings sit side-by-side the decrypt ones. And, some of Panama's wealthy and most famous residence live shoulder-to-shoulder amongst the poorest. But, the contrast of Casco is what brought me to it, and keeps me staying.


~ Evan from http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com
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...
written by Al , November 19, 2009
Some valid points made here from those who have taken Panama for a test drive and bought into the promises by living there.

I'm still new to Panama having visited a few times, purchased a property and still waiting to make the final move. So from an outsiders perspective who has only just dipped a couple of toes into the country, I say that while Panama has it's challenges, many of those challenges are really no different than it's central american neighbors. Crime and poverty is a problem along with corruption. I'm sure we can name more than a handful of neighbors who have the same problems. Much of the blame in misdirected growth seems to have started with over hyped real estate by real estate developers. Anyone looking to escape the western world's problems in exchange for more affordable, opportunity filled lifestyle in a warm climate, Panama seems to fit the criteria easily a few years ago and was heavily touted as the cheap retirement heaven.

The promoters just forgot to mention a few ongoing problems like bureaucracy, corruption, land titling issues, poor service, lousey uneducated lawyers and the ever present Screw or be Screwed attitude.

So are we in the earliest stages, of a central american country just emerging from third world status, crawling up a notch to become more first worldish or will we have a country that will never learn how to play in the international sandbox with the rest of the westernized world?

I think Martinelli wants to do the right thing and it appears the steps he's taking appeal to the locals aswell as position Panama for the rest of t he world stage. The most worrisome part of this whole process is that it will come at a cost. The displacement of certain people who up until now have had power and influence in the country. The new tax regime, should it be implemented will in fact create a better looking face on Panama to the rest of the world. It will say we are part of the "system" and it will bring new opportunites that will far outweigh the tax haven status in benefits to the people of Panama. We can't win that fight but we can modify the tax system to still be beneficial to many people not happy with the high taxes coming to their home countries.

The biggest challenge I believe the Panamanians have is the battle against crime and drugs. If Panama continues down its path, it will be known as an extremely unsafe place to visit and definitely a dangerous place to live. This will keep all people that have money away from living and spending money in Panama. What the country needs are people who deposit their money and choose to SPEND their money here. Crime will keep the country from becoming a place people want to live and as a result will only be a place to drop off money, spend a couple of days and leave.
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choosing words carefully...
written by La Mer , November 20, 2009
I appreciate the perspectives that Matt and LewDog brought into discussion here. I know first hand how exciting and also how frustrating living and working in a developing country can be. And that's exactly what attracts me and what simoultaneoulsy keeps me away from Panama.

Panama could be both a land of contrasts and a contradiction in terms. When a foreigner thinks of Panama s/he wishes out loud: "If somehow, I could rely on the same work ethic and social resonsibility that most people in the first world subscribe to, in an environment that is filled with the zest for life and the laid back attitude of the local people... If only I could enjoy the wonderful Panamanian nature and climate knowing that its' value is protected by sound environmental laws and is reflected in the daily actions of those who live and work there...Never mind the fact that most of those who live and work there cannot see beyond the daily buck and when they do see beyond, it is probably more bucks they are seeing and not the big picture. And the hidden thread in the big picture of Panama is this idea that ultimately, foreigners (on either side) cannot be partners; they are at best providers and at worse, sheep to fleece.

I do not see Panama's identity as "a land of contrasts". At least, I do not see it as a fortunate paradigm. I would change the word "contrast" to "diversity". That's a very different notion, grounded in respect for difference, in sound laws, in enrichment and preservation programs, etc., etc. Possibly on the down side, it sounds less "wild" and more "civilized", but it also sounds less agressive and more nurturing and in the end, more inviting...IT reflects an integrative paradigm and it invites the right kind of people, those who who would come back and those can stay long enough to make a difference...
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slogans
written by La Mer , November 20, 2009
A few years back, I witnessed a few public discussions among branding experts who were thinking on how to promote Romania... such discussions happen regularly and the big words change to reflect specific market trends. Of course, experts in branding must know the country, its culture and its potential inside out, so that the names and experssions they come up with are "authentic" or can match the authentic experience of both, locals and visitors to the land in question. There was an expression in Romanian that they chose first...and that was so authentically Romanian that it was impossible to translate in English. The zest and the vast meanings of that expression were lost in translation but that happens when an identity is "branded". It must work. It must ring a bell in as many heads as possible, it must reach deep in the collective subconsious and it must be in tune with our times...in a word, it must sell. Recently, the branding experts came up with this slogan (see CNN): "Come to Romania: The land of choice." It doesn't matter that to me, as a departed Romanian and to many locals I spoke to, this slogan sounds "lame", too generic, meaningless, cliche, "yer another Western fabrication"... They also recognise that it is one of those cliches that work. And more importantly, it reflects a positive, open attitude and a "perennial" truth about our land that somehow matches the aspirations of all visitors.

Back to your "Panama: Land of contrast". It is true but what kind of an invitation is that? I wonder if truth can be told with more inviting words... I wonder if words can not only reflect but change attitudes and focus perceptions on what is worth seeing and doing in Panama.
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Sucks
written by M´Bosa Itchi , December 10, 2009
Big time. Whole place. Sucks. Tom Hanks had more to do on his desert island in that stupid film. People that say otherwise either are Panamanian and never been outside of the place, or expats that have just become numb to it. Give yourself a couple of months outside and you will gawp in wonder and amazement that is the myth that is Panama.

Lamer...live here (no, visiting does not count), work here then open your mouth.
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Identity?
written by Bob Jones , December 10, 2009
Panama is the land of scoundrels and thieves. It's the wild west here. No one, even the attorneys are clear about the laws which change like the wind. Your success in Panama depends solely on who you know and who you can pay off. It's totally corrupt. As a foreigner, you must expect to be fleeced by the locals. They are not honest or ethical people. But you can make a lot of money here if you latch on to a great opportunity and befriend the right people. In a nutshell, Panama is a great place to make money, but a horrible place to put down your roots.
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All things in time
written by EyeOnPanama.com , December 22, 2009
Panama does not draw me to it as a the land of opportunity. Its draw is the incredible scenery and the opportunity it provides to live life at a slower pace. As I travel in Panama I meet many others who like me are nearing retirement and seeking to unwind. WE are drawn to Panama's smaller communities for this reason. The possibility of a Hard Rock cafe, nightlife, and 5 star hotels and service does little to meet those desires. What our generation will either find or be disappointed about truly has more to do with our ability to slow down and smell the roses. Those of us who want to embrace a less hectic life and have prepared ourselves to retire will love Panama. Those of us that expect Panama will provide opportunity to live life as a high roller for pennies will be greatly disappointed.

~Sandra
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