Rooting out corruption and closing the income gap for Panamanians was promised when Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo was sworn in as the newly elected president of Panama on July 1, 2019. Fast forward a year and neither of those initiatives is the main focus of the man who promised: “complete transparency” along with job opportunities for thousands, new education options and better healthcare access. The arrival of COVID-19 in March 2020 changed the focus as well as the future for Panama, but it hasn’t stopped the work on fulfilling those promises once the virus is contained and a vaccine is developed.
Cortizo knew Panama was an almost unknown vacation destination for many North Americans and he planned to develop international tourism to increase jobs and solid salaries for employees in hotels, the new convention center, new Amador cruise piers, airport, tours and restaurants. Cortizo planned to train employees in English and create as many as 300,000 new jobs.
Contributing 7.5% To The GDP
Neighboring Costa Rica has spent millions on campaigns that consistently brought in tourists and the country is highly dependent on vacationers to support Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth. Cortizo did not want Panama to become too dependent on tourism, but rather to contribute approximately 7.5% to Panama’s overall GDP, balanced with income from the Panama Canal and revenue from the new copper mine.
The new administration knew to develop Panama as a vacation hot spot was possible after completing in-depth research before the election. Focus group participants in the United States, who were shown photographs of the Panama City skyline could not identify it and routinely guessed it must be a city in Asia or the Middle East. “Singapore?” “Dubai?” “Maybe in Japan?”
Developing Tourism Means Keeping Promises
The research also showed that North Americans knew almost nothing about Panama beyond the existence of the Panama Canal and the capture of “a dictator in the jungle.” Developing tourism was a way for Cortizo to deliver on his campaign promise of closing the income gap and providing opportunities for additional education.
But, before a tourism advertising campaign could be executed, COVID-19 put things on hold. Tocumen International Airport closed and almost all hotels and resorts closed temporarily to combat the virus. Hotels were turned into dormitories for front line healthcare workers and make-shift hospitals. Thousands of employees in the tourism and hospitality business were furloughed.
Now three months into the pandemic, there is again movement to reopen tourism. The Panamanian Hotel Association (PHA) reported they had “already started the rigorous sanitary protocols that will be needed to receive tourists in hotels when operations restart.” The problem is that no one knows when Panama will be reopened to visitors from other countries. Hotels are scheduled to open in the fourth block, but the blocks have been paused because COVID-19 cases like everywhere else, continue to rise in Panama.
So instead of waiting for tourists to come from North America, the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) announced they were launching an internal awareness campaign, focusing on local tourists and Panama’s natural beauty and cultural heritage, that can be explored while social distancing.
ATP General Manager Iván Eskildsen noted the campaign would connect the local tourist emotionally with Panama’s history, unspoiled nature, beaches, ecotourism and hiking trails. It is hoped that increasing the local Panamanian’s knowledge about tourist activities will also prepare them to better serve international guests when the world reopens.
By focusing on educating the local tourist on everything from sloths, rainforests, the amazing birds, work of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, where to pick the best curl for surfing and how Panama is leading Central America in green initiatives, the future of Panama post-COVID-19 will be ready to accept new visitors.
Weddings that have been postponed for a year and the pent up desire to take a vacation will mean tourism dollars for Panama. Of course, there will also be the need for rental options on the beaches as well as in the city. Opportunities to secure real estate deals abound during this shutdown. Condotels in Costa del Este and Panama City and one- and two-bedroom residential units facing the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal have never been marketed so attractively.
The stunning two-tower complex of Royal Palm has sold so quickly the developers are anxious to close out the buildings and reallocate resources. Units are being offered for less than $200,000 and some of the larger units, with a solid down payment, are being developer financed at less than one percent.
Remaining Units Offered At Great Prices
The residences of Casa Bonita, with easy access to Panama Pacifico, a private beach and views of the Panama Canal is almost completely without inventory, but the remaining units are available at historically low prices and developer financing.
Generation Tower, in Costa del Este, has successfully launched an Independent Senior Living program that provides health insurance and other amenities aimed at the 55+ year market. Other floors in that tower provide for families and on-site property management for individuals looking for a great revenue stream through renting both short- and long-term.
These units can and will play an important part in welcoming international tourists to Panama. The Cortizo administration is not looking for tourism development to be short-term but rather wants to add annual growth until as many as four million visitors come to Panama by the time he leaves office in 2024.
You Can Leave Now COVID!
I am as anxious as anyone for COVID-19 to leave us. I want to go to a nice restaurant and not worry about how far apart everyone is sitting. I want to lose the face mask! I want to stop washing my hands ninety times a day. I want to get on my bike and fly down the Amador Causeway and admire the beautiful sunsets. I want my family and friends to come for a visit.
This is such an unusual time for everyone, but it is also good in many ways. People are learning to slow down and appreciate the smaller things. They are more grateful for Mother Earth and seem more enlightened as to what we need to do to take care of her. It’s been difficult for many people financially, but it has also opened opportunities for individuals who can invest and take advantage of offers not ordinarily available.
I’d love to discuss details with you about real estate in Panama and the plans for developing tourism. Just drop me a line as I respond to every message and phone call.