Panamainfo’s Blog

Panama is Making Great Progress on Many Fronts. Excerpts from President Martinelli’s US Interesting Speech April 29th

Thanks to the Tico Times for this information.

Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli says his nation has made enormous strides in the fight against corruption, crime and drug trafficking in the two years since he took office.

Speaking to a packed crowed the day after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House, Martinelli said his no-nonsense “law and order” approach has yielded impressive results.

“This is the first time Panama has ever been run by a businessman,” said the 59-year-old Martinelli, a self-made millionaire and chairman of Panama’s Super 99 grocery chain. “Usually in Latin America, the politicians become businessmen after they leave office, but this was the other way around.”

Martinelli was visiting the United States in order to urge the White House and Congress to push for a free-trade agreement between the two countries, which – if passed – would dramatically increase U.S.-Panamanian trade and attract foreign investment, he said.

“We don’t expect any difficulty at all getting it approved. I believe it will go through in the next 60 to 90 days. It’s a no-brainer. I don’t see how little Panama can hurt the U.S. job market. On the contrary, it will create more jobs for the U.S. economy.”

The president boasted that his government has cracked down on price-fixing, illegal kickbacks, tax fraud and corruption within Panama’s police force – a problem that seems to have grown with the arrival of thousands of foreign workers taking advantage of Panama’s rapidly expanding economy, which grew 9 percent last year.

“We regularized a lot of illegal immigrants that were here,” he said. “They were using our schools, our hospitals and our roads but were paying no taxes. That was also a big source of corruption. Every time they were stopped in the streets and asked for IDs, they bribed the officers.”

Now, he said, visitors are permitted to stay in Panama for up to 180 days before having to renew their visas.

“We can proudly say that when we got into power, there was a lot of insecurity, homicide rates were going up and the police were badly motivated because they were not paid well enough. The first thing we did was increase police salaries by 25 percent.”

He added that “Panama is going to be the showcase of programs like facial recognition at the airport, whereby any person who goes there will be connected to databases like FBI and Interpol, and we’ll be able to tell if he’s a drug dealer or a killer.”

According to Martinelli, Great Britain seized 12 tons of cocaine last year, and the United States 28 tons. By comparison, he said, “In one year, Panama catches well over 75 tons. And every ounce of cocaine we seize means less drugs and less crime in the streets of the United States.”

The fact that Panama shares a jungle border with Colombia – the world’s largest source of cocaine – makes it Central America’s first line of defense against drug traffickers.

“We don’t need money. We have all the resources to combat trafficking,” Martinelli told his largely sympathetic audience. “We recently bought six patrol boats from Italy worth more than $200 million. We’re also buying radars and helicopters in order to engage the narco-traffickers. Close to 7 percent of our people have dual U.S.-Panamanian citizenship, so whatever we do in security helps reduce crime and drug trafficking in the U.S.”

Martinelli, whose five-year term of office expires in mid-2014, said Panama now ranks as the second-most competitive economy in Latin America after Chile, and is one of the few countries in the region with investment-grade bond ratings. As such, expanding Panama’s service-based economy is a top priority for his administration – and the planned $5.3 billion expansion of the Panama Canal will pump tens of billions of dollars into the country in coming decades.

“The canal represents 8 percent of our GDP, and this year, the Colón Free Zone will do $27 billion in business,” he explained. “And regarding the canal’s expansion, more money is being spent in the United States than in Panama, because all U.S. ports will have to increase their draught in order to accommodate the world’s largest ships. In Port Elizabeth, New Jersey, a bridge worth over $1 billion has to be built to accommodate post-Panamax ships. The East Coast of the U.S. will greatly appreciate the expansion because it’s very difficult to get merchandise from China, put it on a truck. It costs money and pollutes the environment instead of going through the canal.”

In short, said Martinelli, “if I pay, you pay. If I don’t pay, then you don’t pay. We got our house in order by tying the knots, closing the loopholes and telling people the hanky-panky was over, and by telling the drug traffickers there’s no more tolerance for them. We are catching them and sending them back to Colombia. Everybody’s paying taxes now. Our tax base has increased substantially.”

At the same time, a dramatic increase in tourism – two million foreign visitors are expected to visit Panama this year – has generated revenues to pay for badly needed improvements, including an expansion of Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport.

“Before, if I wanted to go to Aruba or Buenos Aires, I’d have to fly through Miami. But our local airline Copa has bought 39 planes, and Panama is now one of Latin America’s largest hubs. By 2014, well over 14 million passengers will go through that airport,” he said. “Panamanians coming into the U.S. will soon be able to put their passports through a machine in Panama and won’t have to go through Customs once they arrive into the United States.”

On top of that, he said, “you can now find any brand of hotel in Panama from A to Z. Even a Waldorf-Astoria is being built. It’s a new country and everything is being done through a vision of change – but the change has to start from within.”

Asked about potential terrorist attacks against the Panama Canal, Martinelli does not appear to be losing much sleep over that issue.

“The Panama Canal is a neutral place. This waterway serves humanity, but to tell you the truth, it’s almost impossible to say that the canal is fully protected. Look what happened on 9/11,” the president said in response to a reporter’s question. “I don’t believe the canal is on the agenda of any terrorist group. We work in close coordination with the shipping companies, but if someone puts a bomb on a ship and detonates that bomb within the locks in a kamikaze attack, nobody can do anything about it.”

Great News : New Six Month (180 Day) Panama Tourist Visa for Most Tourists

President Martinelli has signed an Executive Degree that all foreigners who do not require a visa- this includes all American and European citizens, effective now will get an automatic 180 days stay in Panama upon entering the country. Foreigners who enter Tocumen Airport are  receiving this 180 stay.


Oct. 13th representing Amcham I was invited to hear Minister Salomon Shamah’s presentation about what Panama’s tourism ministry ( ATP)  accomplished  in the first 100 days. It is quite impressive. These are my unofficial notes:


  1. No one has to pass through migration when you leave Panama! As of mid-November, Panama will be the first country in Latin America to use the same system as the USA and Europe- when you leave Panama you will no longer go through immigration, just a baggage security check.  The extra immigration officers will now all be used to shorten lines for immigration for  incoming passengers.

    2. A tourism hotline has been set up to give info, advise and emergency help.  Tourists call 178 . Operators speak English, Spanish, French and Portuguese If a tourist is in an emergency situation, ATP will send a person from ATP to help the tourist.

    1.  . The tourist card has been eliminated.  It was a hassle for airlines and tourists alike- the $5 will now be charged when a air ticket is bought..


    4. The “Panama 25% Off” low season campaign which brought hundreds of tourist to Panama through a discount program organized with the private sector and promoted by ATP.


    5  The “Casco Viejos” in the provincial cities will be restored and made into tourism attractions beginning with David’s Casco Viejo which includes the church and a museum


    1. A tourism signage project has started beginning with Boquete and Bocas which will help tourists get around town and to the main sights.



    1. With the help of ATP, Google maps of the country are being set up to help tourist find their way around the country. 

    2. Four new charter flights will begin in November from Canada.

    10. A top tourism security expert has been hired by ATP who is holding meeting with hotels and other tourism groups to educate them on how to provide safety to tourists.

    1. ATP is using a new slogan in their ads: “Panama Sorprende”. The great thing is that this slogan translates extremely well into English: A catchy: “Panama Surprises”.Minister Shamah explained that Panama is not branded and that we are not a mature destination where things run smoothly. But Panama does surprise, usually in a  good way but sometimes the surprise won’t be good. But Panama is certainly a surprising country as a tourism destination.

    Nancy Hanna. President and Founder Panama Planner

    Chair of the Tourism Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce

    Ricardo Martinelli: Panama’s Exciting New President

    Just a week before the May 3rd.  elections, presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli predicted he would win the Panama presidency by a “tsunami “. No one believed him. The polls showed him ahead but after all, the last time he ran for president in 2004 he got only 5% of the vote. But that is exactly what happened- he won by landslide- 60% in a 3 way race- the highest margin of any race in Panama’s recent history

    Martinelli won because he convinced the Panamanian people he would  do all the right things for both the populace and the business community- that  he was the person  who could  solve the countries mounting problems including rampant corruption, increasing crime, a public school system that is the most expensive and one of the worst in Latin America and a Panama City transportation chaos that means city dwellers spend 10 years of their life on a bus or car getting to work.

    Mr. Martinelli ran a campaign  with a slogan about “Change ” just like President Obama.  In fact according to an interview in The Panama Post, his models are Barack Obama “because he showed change is possible, Winston Churchhill “for his tenacity”, Otto Von Bismark for unifying Germany and next door neighbor Alvaro Uribe, the very successful of President of Columbia.

    Change is what Panama needs as it stands at a crossroads- a country with one of the most promising futures in Latin America, but only if Mr. Martinelli can solve its current very pressing and serious problems.

    Mr.  Martinelli, age 57  is one of Panama’s most successful businessman having built the country’s largest supermarket chain.  He did his undergraduate studies at the University of Arkansas and an MBA at the prestigious Costa Rica INCAE school of business afilliated with Harvard University. He is a brillant, no-nonsense, take charge type of guy.  His election is hailed  as a turn the right after a string of Latin American governments have turned to the left in recent years.  He is pro-American, will work hard to get the Free Trade Agreement with the US signed this year and he is going to bring modern management and business know-how to solving Panama’s problems.

    Panama watchers are heartened by his actions since his  elections including a choice of ministers- some of whom are brilliant like economist and banker Alberto Vallerino as the head of the all important Ministry of the Economy and some of whole are   “out of the box” appointments like Lucy Molinar as Minister of Education- a popular and formidable TV journalist of enormous integrity.

    Mr. Martinelli’s election made news in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Time. Indeed, many investors looking for a good place to invest money these, are taking second look  at Panama now because of his election.  Among other things, he plans to  will start building right away a metro to solve the devilish Panama City transportation problems, 5 new airports for the burgeoning tourism industry and a highway network including  coastal route to connect Panama’s attractive Caribbean.

    Mr.  Martinelli takes office July 1st. From there on, there’s going to be plenty of interesting news out of Panama.

    How Will Panama’s Economy do in 2009? It will Grow (More than Most) According to Experts

    International organizations, the Panama government and local and international consulting firms are predicting Panama’s economy will grow between 1.2% and 5% in 2009. This is well below the 9.2% it grew in 2008, but better than most other countries where economies are contracting not growing.

    The predictions:

    A local website, Panama Economy Insight is predicting growth of only 1.2% for 2009 but a growth of 9% in 2110 and 2111.

    Standard and Poor is the most pessimistic for 2009 with a prediction of 3.5%

    Local consulting firms Indesa and Deloitte say 4%.

    CEPAL ( Latin American Economic Commission, and the analysts at Credit Suisse and Citibank all predict 4.5%- 5%.

    According to an article in La Prensa March 25th, Panama’s Finance Minister Hector Alexander says ” Considerando all the is happening worldwide with the recessions in the major world economies and other countries in the region, this is very good and shows Panama’s (economic) strength.

    Panama Tourism at a Crossroads/ The Relentness Destruction of Panama’s Forests

    These are comments I made as President of the Tourism Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce at the Amcham tourism forum Sept. 10th.

    It is time for Panama to decide to become the eco- tourism destination it is meant to be and also to take serious measures to stop the relentless destruction of its forests.

    Nancy Hanna

    The title of this forum is“Panama Tourism at a Crossroads” Why? Because now that we have all the basics in place, it is time to decide on what kind of tourism destination Panama should become. When I first began to promote tourism to Panama 10 years ago, I thought Panama would naturally copy Costa Rica in becoming an ecotourism destination but even better because Panama has even more eco destinations than CR, plus more beaches and Indian cultures, history and an attractive capital city. So I thought -this is great- Panama will copy all the good CR has done and learn from the errors- but after 10 years not much has happened, especially in regard to Panama’s becoming a eco-destination. Right now, most of our tourists are coming for business or shopping …80% of our tourists stay in Panama City, about 10% get out to Decameron area, at most 10% go to attractions in the interior like Bocas or Boquete etc. In CR it is the opposite- 90% of their tourists do not stay in San Jose- but get out to the attractions outside the city.

    In CR, the president made a decision that CR would be a ecotourism destination and they have been wildly successful. Panama has not made that decision.

    In fact, Panama’s nature is being destroyed . It is losing 48,000 hectares of forest each year mostly through burning and indiscriminate logging. At the current rate of destruction, in 40 years we won’t have any more forests- a situation with serious ecological consequences not only for tourism but for the beauty of Panama, the climate and the Canal watershed among other things.

    Why have we not done as CR? Ecotourism and tourism is the # 1 business for CR- it is just about the only game in town. Panama hasn’t done the same as CR because Panama is very blessed – it has so much else going on business-wise- the Canal, the free zone, the banking sector, its growing position as a logistical and regional business capital etc. Because Panama tourism is not Panama’s only income earner, while private enterprise did a lot to promote tourism, the government did not do serious work for make tourism happen until Minister Blades came along.

    Today I would like to propose that Panama do what it takes become an ecotourism destination. There are strong arguments that this is the best and most desirable kind of tourism. Several presentations during this forum will speak to this issue.

    For ecotourism, Panama’s greatest natural treasures are its national parks –Soberania, Bastimientos in Bocas, Coiba, Amistad y Volcan Baru and the Darien. 4 years ago I brought to this forum to speak the head of CR’s National Parks- after making a major investment in an attractive visitor infrastructure in their national parks, CR makes a profit of 20 million dollars a year from their national parks.

    Costa Rica’s success shows us that when Panama develops a national park infrastructure the valued eco-tourists will come.

    To conclude I would like to take this opportunity to announce that the American Chamber of Commerce- the tourism committee and the our strong environmental committee with the support of the Board is working on a professional proposal for the president of Panama for a National Park visitor infrastructure, an infrastructure which will generate thousands of jobs and businesses for the people in the interior of the country and generate the funds to preserve Panama’s extraordinary nature .

    Costa Ricans Are Now Admiring the Panamanian “Jaguar”


    For years our neighbors in Costa Rica have felt superior to Panama for many good reasons. But Panama is moving forward these days in many extraordinary ways. According to this column in Costa Rica’s largest newspaper, many Ticos think that they have something to learn from Panama now.

    (This author got two things wrong.One is about the education system- Panama does spend more per capita but the quality of education here is very low -Panamanian students test scores are some of the lowest in Latin America. Secondly, new businesses coming here are having a hard time finding a skilled, English speaking work force. Panama is working on this.)

    A Tica in Panama

    La Nacion, Costa Rica

    Translated from Spanish by the Panamainfo Team

    I traveled to Panama on business Panama and was there for two months. During my visit I was left impressed by how this country is taking huge steps while in Costa Rica it looks like we’ve been asleep. I had no idea about the natural beauties that this country had. I don’t think that the majority of my compatriots have any idea. We Ticos usually see Panama as a place to go shopping in. Once here, it surprised me to find that 30% of their territory is protected territory full of national parks, spectacular beaches with kilometers and kilometers of white sands on both coasts and different mountainous regions with a cool fresher climate, an agreeable contrast with the heat of the capital city and other urban areas.

    This whole paradise is being advertised to the foreigner and there are hordes of tourists coming non-stop from every corner of the earth. They have gotten smart about things and modernized the Panamanian Institute of Tourism. If they continue at this rate, they will soon overtake us in attracting tourists, and that’s just after Panama started an advertising plan a few years ago.

    A modern country. The city of Panama is super-developed and modern, full of skyscrapers and nice places to take a walk or just spend the afternoon. They have nothing to envy a metropolis like New York or Miami, something that we inhabitants of San Jose don’t have—we ended up with a gloomy and ugly San Jose .

    The legislative assembly, the government and the private sector have come to an agreement to make the country a logistical platform for the world and through this to fully develop the nation. One can’t help feeling envious (by what I have said) to see how we Ticos have been asleep while our neighbor to the south has surpassed us without us noticing.

    This country already has more doctors than Costa Rica for every 1,000 inhabitants, the public hospitals are something to envy, they have reinforced education and are now spending more than us on it: 12% of their GDP. In Panama it looks like every sector is in agreement and is working for a common goal of developing the country. It did not surprise me to discover that Panamanians have the highest income per capita in Central America.

    Development. If you go to the interior of the country you can see and grasp the development that this nation is undergoing. The Tocumen airport has become the best airport terminal in Latin America, there are dozens of touristic projects in every province, the construction of mega-highways, the construction of two refineries, one in the Caribbean and the other in the Pacific. The ports are the best in the continent. The infrastructure is that of a first world country which is the reason why dozens of international companies are coming here, finding a skilled workforce and facilities for their operations, in addition to a number of international organizations like the UN and world-class recognized universities.

    Panamanians are not scared of the widening the canal- it has already started. In the capital they’re building what they call the ‘coastal beltway’, filling more than 26 hectares in the Panamanian bay, where they’re building a mega-recreational park for the public, bicycle lanes and highways. We in Tico land , since the 70’s have been fighting to build our “Costanera”. We should learn from the example of the Panamanians who are giving other Latin American Countries a lesson. The social problems in Costa Rica and Panama are quite similar.

    It will be expensive for Costa Rica to do the same as Panama in many aspects, but the time is now to start the necessary work. I once overheard an economist say that awakening of Costa Rica is happening because the Jaguar of the South (Panama) has awakened. Good timing on the Panamanians part. I am sure that we can do it too.

    Proof Positive Panamanians Are Honest- I Told You So

    I have lived and traveled to most countries in Latin America and I always say that in my experience, Panama is one of the safest countries for tourists and that furthermore the Panamanian people are some of the most honest. One of Panama’s top two daily newspapers just did an interesting experiment that proves me right. Panamamerica placed leather wallets with a small amount of cash and ID cards in 15 random places around the city- from schools to churches to the race track. Of the 15 “lost” wallets, 11 were turned in right away to the local guards or respective offices. Almost all were turned in by people of modest means. Bravo Panama!

    MSNBC and Two Prestigious British Publications Report About Tourism in Panama

    msnbcBeating The Crowds To Panama

    Panama is one of the key crossroads in the world, the land bridge between North America and South America and the waterway between the Atlantic and the Pacific, yet it seems to be perpetually a decade or two behind always-trendy Costa Rica in drawing crowds of tourists. This is true even though Panama has all the elements to qualify as a Central American hotspot: teeming wildlife, sandy beaches, scuba diving, world-class fishing, widespread English proficiency, reliable transportation and a cosmopolitan capital city.

    financial times londonCoasting Along the Pacific

    The steamy glamour and air of infinite possibility that lure people to Panama in search of a new life is not exclusive to its capital, Panama City. High-end residential developments up the Pacific coast and on the islands scattered off it promise to deliver the requisite combination of oceanfront setting, high-tech communication systems, stylish architecture and cosmopolitan multiple home-owning neighbours.

    Casco ViejoPanama’s Hottest Secret

    If you’re looking to get ahead of the game, Panama City’s Casco Viejo is as up-and-coming as it gets, says Vicky Baker. Go now before the word is well and truly out.

    Panama one of safest countries in the region for tourism

    In 1999, Newsweek magazine published a graph with the Pinkerton Intelligence Agencies assessment of tourism safety for all the countries in the world. Panama rated the top category for tourism safety- the same as the United States.( I have a copy of the article) Good news- Nothing has changed- Panama is still one of the safest countries in the region for tourists- The American Chamber of Commerce Tourism Committee just met with the head of the National Tourism Police and Panama’s rate for tourism crime is .03- about as low as it gets. It is almost all petty theft. FYI, there are some current problems with robberies in hotel rooms when guests have left, which they are working to solve.

    I have traveled extensely in Latin America and making comparisons, I did not need these stats to know that Panama is a safe place for tourists. In so many other places you have to be constantly on your guard and robberies of tourists are common place.