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Panama: Doing business and staying in touch

Doing Business in Panama

Punctuality is appreciated and the exchange of business cards is normal. Suits are necessary for business meetings.

Like most of Central and South America, smart dress is essential for business in Panama. Dark, conservative suits are the norm for both genders, and trousers are fine for women. Titles are important – address people by their professional titles wherever possible – and the exchange of business cards is appropriate. If you can possibly have business cards with one side in Spanish printed, then do it.

When attending a business meeting, it is important that you are punctual – but don’t take offense if the other party is not. It happens. It is customary to start with some social conversation rather than leaping into business talk – let the other party bring it up and in the meantime stick to culture and sports. Gift-giving isn’t really necessary, though it is customary for a Panamanian businessman to take you out to dinner to celebrate the closing of a deal.

Business hours are typically 0800 until 1200 and then 1400 until 1800. Expect a long lunch break culture.

Office Hours

Mon-Fri 0800-1700.

Economy

Panama has a relatively prosperous economy based on agriculture, light industry, revenues from the Panama Canal and the service sector. Over half the land area is given over to agriculture. The country has significant reserves of timber, particularly mahogany, and good fishing stocks. Further revenue is obtained from tolls levied on ships passing through the Panama Canal and a plethora of 'offshore' companies.

Reforms during the 1990s saw the privatisation of many state enterprises, overhaul of tax and social security systems, and the removal of price controls and import tariffs. Annual growth in 2015 was 5.8%, while inflation was 0.2%. Unemployment was 5.1% (of the labour force) in 2015. 

The Colón Free Trade Zone established near the Canal, an 'open' shipping registry and a rapidly growing tourist industry are all important sources of revenue for Panama. The completion of a $6.2 billion Panama Canal expansion project in 2016 doubled the capacity of the canal by adding a new lane of traffic, and increasing the size of the lanes and locks to allow larger ships to pass.

Panama is a member of the Inter-American Development Bank. A Trade Promotion agreement with the USA was signed in 2007. Atlapa Convention Centre in Panama City is the largest convention facility in Central America which has a capacity of 10,500 and includes lecture rooms, a theatre/auditorium and exhibition rooms. Other centres include Figali Convention Centre and Hotel El Panama.

GDP

$52.1 billion (2015).

Main exports

Petroleum, bananas, gold, fish, prawns, coffee, clothing and sugar.

Main imports

Capital goods, food, cars, chemicals, medicines and consumer goods.

Main trading partners

Netherlands, Japan, Canada, China and USA.

Keeping in Touch in Panama

Telephone

Calling home is easiest either via Skype in an internet cafe (plenty have it on their computers and headsets) or using International Phone Cards. Hotel phone rates are typically expensive.

Mobile Phone

Roaming agreements exist with international mobile phone companies. Coverage is good. If you will be making a lot of calls within the country then it might be worth buying a local SIM card for your mobile phone. Make sure your phone is unlocked.

Internet

Internet cafes exist in main urban areas. Many hotels are Wi-Fi enabled and you can occasionally piggyback on open networks.

Media

Freedom of the press is guaranteed in Panama, but that wasn’t always the case: under the regimes between 1968 and 1989, the media was very strictly controlled. The main English-language newspaper, issued twice monthly, is Panama News, and other daily Spanish-language papers include Crítica Libre, La Estrella de Panamá, El Panamá América, La Prensa and El Siglo. The main commercial TV networks are Telemetro, RPC and Televisora Nacional (TVN); FETV is a charitable network.

Post

Airmail to Western Europe takes five to 10 days. Sending post by normal Panama mail can take 14 days to the US on a good run. If you're in a hurry or really care about the contents of your package, and don't mind spending some money, there's always DHL.

Post Office hours

Mon-Fri 0800-1600, Sat 0800-1300.

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