PANAMA’S STRONG ECONOMY BRIGHTENS FUTURE AND PAST
As much of the world still struggles its way back from the economic hits of recent years, Panama’s full-steam-ahead economic engine continues to defy all expectations. Frank de Lima, Panama’s Economy and Finance Minister, announced last week that this year’s economic growth is on track for an estimated 10%, keeping pace with last year’s figures, and next year will continue the trend with growth projected at 8%.
Panama’s meteoric rise has made it one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America, at a time when many of the world’s major economies are just limping along. This impressive performance recently prompted both Fitch Ratings and Standard and Poor’s Rating Service to recently boost Panama’s credit rating.
Externally, Panama is establishing or solidifying trade alliances, and exploring ways to meet the challenges that lay ahead. Panama joined Central America and the Dominican Republic last week in hosting a regional conference with the International Monetary Fund to discuss economic development policies for the region. Earlier this month, Panama also joined a trade agreement pact between Central American and the European Union that will eliminate tariffs on manufactured goods, agriculture and fisheries.
Internally, signs of the explosive growth are everywhere – the Panama Canal is undergoing a massive, $5.2 billion overhaul, the capital’s downtown is getting ready to launch the region’s first subway system and new airports are springing up all over the country. As a final confirmation that the country has truly “arrived”, Hilton Worldwide has just formally named the new Waldorf Astoria Panama, long a hallmark of luxury and opulence. The 264-room hotel is set to open next year, just minutes from the city downtown core and the historic district of Casco Viejo.
Casco Viejo (also known as Casco Antiguo) is also getting a facelift. Work has long been under way to restore the UNESCO World Heritage Site, also the site of the oldest European town in the continental Americas. Founded in 1519, Panama Viejo gave way to the unique, colorful blend of Spanish/ French colonial and early American architecture that defines Casco Viejo today.
The area’s historic sites, buildings, churches, rich cultural heritage and overall visual impact continue to draw thousands of tourists a year, and investors are also being drawn in. Boutique hotels, gourmet restaurants and eclectic shops are springing up in the once run-down district, building a new reputation for a kind of bohemian chic that sets it apart from the nearby urban capital.
The government has provided incentives for the past several years for those investing in Casco Viejo, particularly toward the renovation of heritage sites, and is now itself investing in the district’s infrastructure with an eye to the future. New storm drains and viaducts are being put in place, the sewer system overhauled and a new fire station is planned. In order to safeguard the area’s unique charm, electric and telecommunication lines are being buried.
Such efforts to preserve the past must be lauded, in a country where the future shines so brightly.