I’ll shortly be writing about my own recent trips to Albania and Burundi. In the meantime, my colleague Shona, who has been collecting data in Panama, shares some of her experiences. Regards Mark.
This year marks 100 years since the first ship travelled the length of the Panama Canal when it first opened in August 1914. A 77 kilometre stretch of water linking the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans (via the Caribbean Sea), the canal was previously controlled by the USA until full ownership was ceded to Panama at the end of 1999. The centenary anniversary coincides with the canal expansion project, which is set to be completed within the next year, doubling the canal’s capacity and allowing a vast increase in trade and tourism that is dependent on this cut through. The expansion has run in parallel with other developments occurring across Panama City, which I visited on a data collection trip earlier this year.
Panama City has begun to shake off its reputation as a hide-out for criminals and tax dodgers, having been removed from the Organization of Economic Development’s ‘grey list’ of tax havens in 2011. Despite poverty levels in Panama hovering above 30%, and corruption remaining a pervasive problem (Panama was ranked number 102 out of 177 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2013), driving through the city centre, the comparisons with large, developed US cities seem fairly evident. Panama City is often referred to as the ‘Miami of Central America’ and the skyscrapers along the waterfront Balboa Avenue, from the domineeringly luxurious Trump Towers, to the collection of high rise office and apartment blocks, are reminiscent of the South Beach skyline. Nestled at the southern end of this vastly developed avenue is the Old Town, Casco Viejo, a World Heritage Site that houses a cluster of buildings dating back to the 17th century- and a buzzing nightlife enjoyed by locals and expats. The best views of the Panama City skyline can be seen from the rooftops of smart bars which sit side by side with the historic ruins of neglected buildings.
Panama City’s Americanisms are not all that surprising given that its history since independence from Colombia in 1903 has been so closely tied to the USA. In 1914, the USA completed the building of the Panama Canal, and was granted the right to use its military to defend it, although this later became a contentious issue between the two nations. In 1989 diplomatic ties became further entangled when Panama was invaded by the USA to oust the country’s dictator-president, Colonel Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was embroiled in international drug trafficking. His actions and hostility to the USA led to a military assault on Panama City and subsequently Noriega went into hiding at the Vatican Embassy until forced to turn himself over to the Americans.
America’s influence is not just evident in the city’s history and modern building developments, but also in the use of the US dollar as legal tender. Panama does have its own currency running alongside this, the Panamanian Balboa, but only in coin format- only US dollar notes are accepted. Shopping in Panama City is also a very American experience. The main supermarkets, Riba Smith and El Rey, are well stocked with international goods that would certainly make any western expat feel at home, and there are a number of large shopping malls that wouldn’t be out of place in an American city, such as the expansive Multiplaza which stocks a huge variety of high-end global brands, a multi-screen cinema and a wide range of international eateries.
Another part of my role involves meeting with estate agents to find out about the property market for expatriates in the locations we visit. While in Panama City, I met with a number of local experts who provided details about popular districts and offered an insight into the city’s relatively recent development. One agent told me that he owned an eighth floor apartment on Balboa Avenue and when he had bought this just over a decade before, it had been one of the tallest buildings on the street, but was now dwarfed by the towering structures that surround it. Accommodation in the popular central areas of Panama City is very much focused on vertical living. Agents highlighted the difficulties experienced by expats arriving from parts of the world where they were used to extensive outdoor space and who now had to deal with the reality of living thirty floors up in a city centre apartment, in order to reside in the most desirable districts.
Another issue faced by expats living in this bustling city, which I experienced first-hand, is the standstill traffic once the torrential rain begins. Panama’s traffic can be hectic at the best of times, and I was advised that, despite the heat and rain, it would be significantly quicker to traverse the city on foot. This issue will hopefully be somewhat relieved with the opening of the new Panama City metro, the first such system in Central America, which started running its first line in April this year. At present, the metro has 12 stops and runs almost 14km across the city. An additional line is expected to be completed by 2017 to expand its coverage. While this will not connect all parts of the city, hopefully it will offer residents an alternative to being stuck in endless traffic- or braving a soaking by the sudden tropical downpours!
Shona is part of ECA International’s International Data Research team. She travels the world regularly, capturing price data for goods and services to assist with cost of living comparisons around the world.