Panama, officially called the Republic of Panama (Spanish: República de Panamá), is a country generally considered to be located entirely in North or Central America. It borders Costa Rica to the west, Colombia (in South America) to the southeast, the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south. The capital and largest city is Panama City, which is home to almost half of the country’s 3.9 million inhabitants.
Panama was inhabited by several indigenous tribes before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. Panama seceded from Spain in 1821 and joined a union of Nueva Granada, Ecuador and Venezuela, the Republic of Gran Colombia. When Gran Colombia dissolved in 1831, Panama and Nueva Granada remained united and eventually became the Republic of Colombia. With the support of the United States, Panama separated from Colombia in 1903, which allowed for the construction of the Panama Canal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. In 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the canal from the United States to Panama before the end of the 20th century, which was completed on 31 December 1999.
Revenues from the canal toll still make up a significant part of Panama’s gross domestic product, although trade, banking and tourism are important and growing sectors. In 2015, Panama ranked 60th in the world in terms of the Human Development Index. Since 2010, Panama has been the second most competitive economy in Latin America, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Panama’s jungle, which covers about 40 % of its land area, is home to an abundance of tropical plants and animals, some of which are found nowhere else on earth.
Tourism in Panama
Tourism in Panama is booming. It has maintained its growth over the last five years thanks to government taxes and discounts for foreign guests and retirees. These economic incentives have led to Panama being considered a relatively good place to retire in the world. Panama’s real estate developers have increased the number of tourist destinations over the past five years due to interest in these incentives for visitors. In 2012, 2,200,000 tourists came.
Panama City seen from the Corredor Sur motorway.
The number of tourists from Europe increased by 23.1 % in the first nine months of 2008. According to the Panama Tourism Authority (ATP), 71,154 European tourists came to Panama from January to September, 13,373 more than in the same period last year. Most European tourists were Spanish (14,820), followed by Italians (13,216), French (10,174) and British (8,833). There were 6997 from Germany, the most populous country in the European Union. Europe has become one of the key markets for promoting Panama as a tourist destination.
In 2012, 4,345.5 million flowed into the Panamanian economy through tourism. This corresponded to 9.5 % of the country’s gross domestic product, surpassing other productive sectors.
Panama enacted Law 80 in 2012 to promote foreign investment in tourism. Law 80 replaced an earlier Law 8 from 1994. Law 80 provides a 100 per cent exemption from income and property tax for 15 years, duty-free importation of construction materials and equipment for five years and an exemption from capital gains tax for five years.
Geography of Panama
Panama is located in Central America and borders both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica. It lies mainly between latitudes 7° and 10°N and longitudes 77° and 83°W (a small area lies west of 83°).
Its location on the Isthmus of Panama is strategic. In 2000, Panama controlled the Panama Canal, which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea with the northern Pacific Ocean. The total area of Panama is 74,177.3 km2.
The dominant feature of Panama’s geography is the central spine of mountains and hills that form the continental divide. This watershed is not one of the major mountain ranges of North America, and only near the Colombian border are there plateaus related to the Andean system of South America. The backbone that forms the watershed is the highly eroded arc of a seabed uplift, where the peaks were formed by volcanic intrusions.
The mountain range of the continental divide is called the Cordillera de Talamanca and lies close to the border with Costa Rica. Further east it becomes the Serranía de Tabasará, and the part closest to the lower saddle of the isthmus, where the Panama Canal is located, is often called the Sierra de Veraguas. As a whole, the mountain range between Costa Rica and the Canal is commonly referred to by geographers as the Cordillera Central.
The highest point in the country is Volcán Barú, which rises to 3,475 metres. Almost impenetrable jungle forms the Darién Fault between Panama and Colombia, where Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers operate with hostage-taking. This phenomenon and the movements to protect the forest create a gap in the Pan-American Highway, which also forms a complete route from Alaska to Patagonia.
The fauna of Panama is the most diverse of all Central American countries. There are many South American species as well as North American species.
Almost 500 rivers criss-cross Panama’s rugged landscape. Most are not navigable, rise in the highlands, meander through valleys and form coastal deltas. However, the Río Chagres (Chagres River) in central Panama is one of the few wide rivers and a great source of hydroelectric power. The central part of the river is dammed by the Gatun Dam and forms Lake Gatun, an artificial lake that is part of the Panama Canal. The lake was created between 1907 and 1913 by the construction of the Gatun Dam on the Río Chagres. At the time of its creation, Lake Gatun was the largest artificial lake in the world and the dam was the largest earthen dam. The river flows northwest into the Caribbean Sea. Lakes Kampia and Madden (also filled by the Río Chagres) supply the area of the former Canal Zone with hydroelectric power.
The Río Chepo, another source of hydropower, is one of more than 300 rivers that flow into the Pacific. These rivers facing the Pacific are longer and slower than the rivers on the Caribbean side. Their basins are also larger. One of the longest is the Río Tuira, which flows into the Golfo de San Miguel and is the only river in the country navigable by large ships.
The Caribbean coast is characterised by several good natural harbours. However, Cristóbal, at the Caribbean end of the channel, had the only significant port facilities in the late 1980s. The numerous islands of the Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro, close to Costa Rica’s beaches, form a large natural harbour and protect the banana port of Almirante. The more than 350 San Blas Islands near Colombia stretch for more than 160 kilometres (99 miles) along the protected Caribbean coast.
Currently, the terminal ports at both ends of the Panama Canal, the Port of Cristobal and the Port of Balboa, rank second and third respectively in Latin America in terms of the number of container units (TEUs) handled. The Port of Balboa covers 182 hectares and includes four container berths and two multipurpose berths. In total, the berths are over 2,400 metres long and 15 metres deep. The Port of Balboa has 18 super post-Panamax and Panamax dock cranes and 44 gantry cranes. The Port of Balboa also has 2,100 square metres (23,000 square feet) of storage space.
The ports of Cristobal (which include the container terminals of Panama Ports Cristobal, Manzanillo International Terminal and Colon Container Terminal) handled 2,210,720 TEU in 2009, which is second in Latin America after the port of Santos in Brazil.
Excellent deep-water ports that can handle large VLCCs (Very Large Crude Oil Carriers) are located in Charco Azul, Chiriquí (Pacific) and Chiriquí Grande, Bocas del Toro (Atlantic), near Panama’s western border with Costa Rica. The Trans-Panama Pipeline, which crosses the isthmus over a length of 131 kilometres (81 miles), has been in operation between Charco Azul and Chiriquí Grande since 1979.
Demographics of Panama
Panama recorded a population of 3,405,813 in the 2010 census. The proportion of the population under 15 years of age was 29 % in 2010. 64.5 % of the population was between 15 and 65 years old, and 6.6 % of the population was 65 years or older.
More than half of the population lives in the Panama City-Colón metropolitan corridor, which spans several cities. Panama’s urban population is over 70%, making it the most urbanised in Central America.
In 2010, the population was 65% mixed race (white and Indian), 12.3% Indian, 9.2% black/multi-white and 6.7% white.
Panama’s ethnic groups include mestizos, who are a mixture of European and indigenous ancestors. Blacks, or Afro-Panamanians, make up 15 to 20 per cent of the population. Most Afro-Panamanians live in the Panama-Colón metropolitan region, Darien province, La Palma and Bocas Del Toro. Neighbourhoods in Panama City with a large black population include: Curundu, El Chorrillo, Rio Abajo, San Joaquin, El Marañón, San Miguelito, Colón and Santa Ana. Black Panamanians are the descendants of African slaves brought to the Americas as part of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1500s. The second wave of blacks brought to Panama came from the Caribbean when the Panama Canal was built. Panama also has a large Chinese and Indian (India) population. They were used for labour in the construction of the canal. Most Chinese-Panamanians live in Chiriquí province. Europeans and white Panamanians are a minority in Panama. They are the descendants of the people who colonised Panama, worked on the canal and settled in the country. Panama is also home to a small Arab community that has mosques to practice Islam.
The indigenous population comprises seven ethnic groups: the Ngäbe, the Kuna (Guna), the Emberá, the Buglé, the Wounaan, the Naso Tjerdi (Teribe) and the Bri Bri.
The government of Panama does not collect statistics on the religious affiliation of its citizens, but various sources estimate that 75-85% of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and 15-25% as Protestant. The Bahá’í Faith in Panama is estimated at 2.00% of the national population, or about 60,000 people, of whom about 10% are Guaymí.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) claims over 40,000 members. Smaller religious groups include Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopalians with 7,000 to 10,000 members, Jewish and Muslim communities with about 10,000 members each, Hindus, Buddhists and other Christians. Indigenous religions include Ibeorgun (Kuna) and Mamatata (Ngobe). There are also a small number of Rastafarians.
Economy of Panama
According to the CIA World Factbook, Panama had an unemployment rate of 2.7% in 2012. A food surplus was recorded in August 2008. On the Human Development Index, Panama ranked 60th in 2015. In recent years, Panama’s economy has boomed, with real gross domestic product (GDP) growth averaging more than 10.4% in 2006-2008. Panama’s economy is among the fastest growing and best managed in Latin America. The Latin Business Chronicle predicted that Panama would be Latin America’s fastest-growing economy in the five-year period 2010-14, on par with Brazil’s 10% rate.
The Panama Canal expansion project and the free trade agreement with the United States are expected to boost economic expansion and prolong it for some time.
Despite its higher average GDP per capita, Panama remains a country of stark contrasts. Due to dramatic educational disparities, more than 25% of the Panamanian population lived in national poverty and 3% of the population lived in extreme poverty in 2013, according to recent World Bank reports.
Panama’s economy is mainly based on a well-developed service sector, including trade, tourism and commerce, due to its key geographical position. The handover of the canal and military installations by the United States has led to major construction projects.
The project to build a third set of locks for the Panama A Canal was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum on 22 October 2006 (albeit with a low turnout). The official cost of the project is estimated at $5.25 billion. The canal is of great economic importance, bringing millions of dollars in toll revenue into the national economy and creating massive employment. The transfer of control of the canal to the Panamanian government was completed in 1999, after 85 years of US control.
Copper and gold deposits are exploited by foreign investors, much to the displeasure of some environmental groups, as all projects are located in protected areas.
Panama, a tax haven
Since the early 20th century, Panama has gained a worldwide reputation as a tax haven. In 2016, the publication of the Panama Papers triggered a huge global financial scandal.