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Panama was one of seven Latin American countries to see transparency improve in real estate markets over the past two years, according to Jones Lange LaSalle’s “Real Estate Transparency Index.” Panama was among the ten “most improved” real estate markets on the list, which is based on five sub-indices: performance measurement, market fundamentals, listed vehicles, legal and regulatory environment, and transaction processes. Despite Panama’s improvements, the country was still categorized as having “low transparency in real estate markets,” and placed 62nd out of the 81 markets listed on the index.

While corruption and lack of transparency are still major issues in Panama, the significant gains in the index over the past two year exhibit the major changes occurring in Panama. According to the transparency index report, Panama’s improvements were due to several factors, including the country’s strategic location in the Americas, economic and political stability, favorable climate and cost of living, and the availability of capital for real estate development.

For more information, read the full report here (registration required).

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A new luxury eco-resort, Emerald Monkey, is scheduled to break ground in Bocas Del Toro this month, for completion in 2010. The resort, billed as the first zero-carbon luxury resort in the world, will feature 1, 2 and 3 bedroom villas with private plunge pools and garden terraces. According to the developments website, the resort will be receive electricity exclusively from hydroelectric dams, will utilize chlorine free natural saltwater pools, and will obtain drinking water from local springs. The resort will also operate an organic farm on the premises, and will feature a market with locally grown and organically produced produce and fruit.

With relatively few eco-resorts in Panama (in comparison to Costa Rica), it is good to see developers increasing the focus on eco-minded tourists. Claiming carbon neutrality is an ambitious goal for any development, and if the development continues as currently planned the Emerald Monkey resort could be a very unique experience, and hopefully increase environmental standards and awareness among developers in Panama.

With any “eco” development, environmental benefits can often be exaggerated and “greenwashed.” In the case of the Emerald Monkey development, claims for one hundred percent hydro power do avoid releasing carbon pollution, yet could also have negative impacts on local biodiversity. While the “handmade bungalows” that make up the resort are to be handmade from sustainable materials, they are also shipped from Bali, which is likely to be carbon intensive. Despite these potential exaggerations, claiming carbon neutrality is an ambitious goal, and hopefully start to set a new standard for sustainability in Panama resort developments.

Panama City’s Casco Viejo neighborhood is receiving more praise as Panama City’s hottest neighborhood and was called “a cultural cornerstone” rivaling Miami’s South Beach in the New York Times. Panama City’s up-and-coming historic neighborhood has attracted the attention of international media outlets. Last month Casco Vieio was featured in an article in The Guardian. The Times article describes the neighborhood as conjuring images of Havana, yet bursting with energy as historic colonial buildings are being renovated and converted to luxury apartments and boutiques.

At a time when other real estate sectors are slouching, Casco Viejo provides interesting opportunities for real estate and development, particularly for anyone willing to take on historic preservation and reservation.

 A recent post in The Panama Report investigates the current condo market boom in Panama City. The author of the article, a real estate development consultant based in Panama City, discusses the fundamentals of the condo market in Panama City, which have led him to conclude that the market may be on the verge of busting. Many condominiums are now selling between $300,000 and $600,000, with a median price per square meter of $3,000. The author worries that as banks in Panama become more conservative with loans in response to the conditions in the United States, it is likely that developers are going to take the brunt of the damage as speculators fail to make payments. Most deposits on units range from 10 – 30%, meaning many developers could be left with 70-90% of the cost if investors begin to back out of the market.

I have to say that I agree with what Mr. Quesada warns of in this article, and admit that I would be pretty nervous if I was developing upscale condominiums in Panama City right now. I do have a few caveats though. While I do think that there are similarities between the current situation in Panama City and in the United States several years ago, there are several important differences. Unlike the United States, Panama does not offer mortgage backed securities. While this will tighten lending in the country and decreases liquidity, it should prevent the bubble from becoming too large too fast as it did in the United States – particularly as it did with the subprime mortgage mess.

 Another potential factor in Panama City’s condo market are European investors. Depending on how the euro and pound sterling fare, Panama City could continue to be a relative bargain for Europeans. While the infrastructure in Panama City still lags behind cities such as London or New York, the cost of living is not likely to be quite as expensive as these cities.

There is no doubt that the condo market in Panama City is likely to cool off in the near future. Yet the city continues to be promising as a long term investment, particularly once the bubble begins to deflate and a better price equilibrium is reached in the market.

Panama’s Pearl Islands were recently featured in an article on CNN, and were described as a “beach bum’s paradise.” The Pearl Islands are located 30 miles off the Pacific coast of Panama in the Gulf of Panama, and can be reached via a short 20 minute plane ride from Panama City. The tropical islands were the location of three seasons of the American television program ‘Survivor.’

The Pearl Islands, which are said to have been stop off point for Spanish Conquistadors on their way to bring treasure back to Spain, are now the location of many wealthy Panamanian’s vacation residences. The Pearl Islands were briefly the home of the Shah of Iran following his exile in the late 1970s.

The author visited Contadora, one of three islands in the archipelago that are accessible by plane, and Mogo Mogo, a deserted island used to film seasons of ‘Survivor’ (which is still used as the location to international versions of the show). The Pearl Islands feature pristine beaches, fantastic snorkeling, and chance run-ins with television crews.

For more information the CNN article can be read here

Panama’s government is reporting that economic activity has increased 6.96% this past June in comparison to the same period last year. Panama’s economy still appears to be staying strong, despite the sinking dollar and turmoil hitting the markets in the United States and Europe. It will be particularly interesting to see if the trend continues as numbers continue to come out for the later summer months, when increasing gas prices and uncertainty in the finance industry put pressure on the United States economy.

Source:
Panama June economic activity up 6.96% vs year ago (Economictimes.indiatimes.com)

I recently had the opportunity to interview Sylvain Duford, who is currently building a house in Altos del Maria, Panama, and is chronicling his adventure in his blog,Sylvain’s Panama Adventure. According to his blog, Mr. Duford is a former Canadian Airforce pilot, and is currently a software engineer. He began writing about his experiences building a house in Panama on his blog in February of 2007.

PREI: Why did you choose Panama as a location to build a second home, and how did you decide on the specific region or location?

SD: We heard about from a friend who bought a lot in Bocas del Toro and after researching it, we found out that the combination of infrastructure, health care, safety, low cost of living, climate and favourable tax treatment was pretty much unbeatable. We like to live in the country and we don’t like heat, so building in the mountains made sense for us. Additionally, Altos del Maria is safe, 30 minutes from Gorgona beach, and 1.5 hour from the city, so it was a great combination for us.

PREI: What made you decide on building the home yourself, rather than investing in an existing piece of real estate in Panama?

SD: We didn’t find anything we really liked, plus we had some ideas about our very own piece of tropical paradise.

PREI: As your home is still under construction, what have been the most difficult obstacles in planning and building your home as of yet? What have been the most rewarding aspects?

SD: Finding and selecting a trustworthy architect and a builder were the most stressful and difficult aspects. You pretty much have to go with someone that has a proven track record and is recommended by one or more persons you trust. Building in any country is a lot of work and trouble and you pretty much have to be there all the time. Doing so in a far-away third-world country makes it even more challenging since we can’t be there all the time. Luckily we found a trusted third party to watch over the construction for us. Seeing our embryonic ideas become a sophisticated design and then slowly become reality has been very rewarding.

PREI: Reading your blog I can see that you are interested in the outdoors, and are a self described environmentalist. Have these interests impacted your decisions in undertaking this project as far as location, design, or building materials, etc?

SD: Yes our lot selection and house design have kept in mind the need to minimize our energy consumption and allow us to easily implement green energy and rain-water conservation once we are established there.

PREI: What additional advice would you give to anyone interested in buying or building either a primary residence or second home in Panama?

SD: I would say that you need to arm yourself with a lot of patience and give yourself at least two years for the whole project from lot selection to end of construction. You also need to select the people you work with very carefully and be ready for things to go a lot slower than you expected. But in the end, it’s all worth it.

PREI: Thank you very much for your time, and I wish you luck with your building project!

To read more about Sylvain Duford’s experiences building a home in Panama, please visit his blog.

The Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City (also called Casco Antiguo) is “one of the hippest barrios in Latin America,” according to a recent article in the Guardian. The article describes the growing popularity of Panama’s capital city as one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in Latin America. Once a stopping off point for tourists visiting the Panama Canal, Panama City is now becoming a base for tourists due to its bustling nightlife, close proximity to both Pacific and Caribbean beaches, and access to unique tropical ecosystems teeming with biodiversity. Panama is also gaining a reputation as a cultural center in Latin America, particularly in the realm of music. Local bands have begun to receive more regional attention throughout Latin America, in addition to a thriving jazz scene in and around Panama City.

This article highlights many of the strengths in Panama’s growing tourism economy. Given the level of media attention the country is receiving in the United Kingdom, due in part because of the scandalous ‘canoe man’ incident, and the upcoming James Bond film, it is likely that tourism from the United Kingdom and Europe will likely increase. Given Panama’s currency’s ties to the dollar, it is almost certain that the country will increasingly gain attention from European travelers for the foreseeable future (or until the euro and the pound begin to lose value to the dollar).

The International Finance Corporation (IFC) is considering offering a $500 million loan to help Panama finance the current canal expansion. The project, which includes adding a third set of locks to the canal, has a current estimated price tag of over $5 billion. The expansion will allow larger ships to pass through the aging American built canal. The canal is a major component of Panama’s economy, directly and indirectly accounting for nearly 19% of the country’s GDP, and 41.2% of its export volume.

The IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, is primarily responsible for providing loans to major private sector projects in developing nations. The group predicts that the Panama Canal expansion will boost Panama’s real GDP by 0.6 – 0.8% at its completion. The IFC’s board of directors is expected to review the loan proposal as early as October this year.

Source:
IFC Mulls $500 Loan For Canal Expansion (Nasdaq.com)

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