Panama Travel Information

Photo With US backing, Panama seceded from Colombia in 1903 and promptly signed a treaty with the US allowing for the construction of a canal and US sovereignty over a strip of land on either side of the structure (the Panama Canal Zone). The Panama Canal was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1904 and 1914. On 7 September 1977, an agreement was signed for the complete transfer of the Canal from the US to Panama by the end of 1999. Certain portions of the Zone and increasing responsibility over the Canal were turned over in the intervening years. With US help, dictator Manuel NORIEGA was deposed in 1989. The entire Panama Canal, the area supporting the Canal, and remaining US military bases were turned over to Panama by or on 31 December 1999.
The culture, customs, and language of the Panamanians are predominantly Caribbean Spanish. Ethnically, the majority of the population is mestizo (mixed Spanish and Indian) or mixed Spanish, Indian, Chinese, and West Indian. Spanish is the official and dominant language; English is a common second language spoken by the West Indians and by many in business and the professions. More than half the population lives in the Panama City-Colon metropolitan corridor.

Panama's history has been shaped by the evolution of the world economy and the ambitions of great powers. Rodrigo de Bastidas, sailing westward from Venezuela in 1501 in search of gold, was the first European to explore the Isthmus of Panama. A year later, Christopher Columbus visited the isthmus and established a short-lived settlement in the Darien. Vasco Nunez de Balboa's tortuous trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific in 1513 demonstrated that the isthmus was, indeed, the path between the seas, and Panama quickly became the crossroads and marketplace of Spain's empire in the New World. Gold and silver were brought by ship from South America, hauled across the isthmus, and loaded aboard ships for Spain. The route became known as the Camino Real, or Royal Road, although was more commonly known as Camino de Cruces (Road of the Crosses) because of the frequency of gravesites along the way.

Modern Panamanian history has been shaped by its transisthmian canal, which had been a dream since the beginning of Spanish colonization. From 1880 to 1900, a French company under Ferdinand de Lesseps attempted unsuccessfully to construct a sea-level canal on the site of the present Panama Canal. In November 1903, with U.S. encouragement and French financial support, Panama proclaimed its independence and concluded the Hay/Bunau-Varilla Treaty with the United States.

Panama's economy is based primarily on a well-developed services sector that accounts for nearly 80% of GDP. Services include the Panama Canal, banking, the Colon Free Zone, insurance, container ports, flagship registry, medical and health, and other business.

A major challenge facing the current government under President Mireya Moscoso is turning to productive use the 70,000 acres of former U.S. military land and the more than 5,000 buildings that reverted to Panama at the end of 1999. Administratively, this job falls to the Panamanian Inter-Oceanic Regional Authority.
GDP growth for 2002 was about 0.8% compared to 0.3% in 2001. Though Panama has the highest GDP per capita in Central America, about 40% of its population lives in poverty. The unemployment rate surpassed 14% in 2002.

From March 2001 to February 2003, Panama served as host for the Free Trade Area of the Americas negotiations. Panama’s first free trade agreement, with El Salvador, entered into force in early 2003, and in August 2003 Panama concluded negotiations on an FTA with Taiwan. Panama also is negotiating FTAs with its Central American neighbors.

The United States cooperates with the Panamanian Government in promoting economic, political, security, and social development through U.S. and international agencies. Cultural ties between the two countries are strong, and many Panamanians come to the United States for higher education and advanced training. About 19,000 American citizens reside in Panama, many retirees from the Panama Canal Commission and individuals who hold dual nationality. There also is a rapidly growing enclave of American retirees in Chiriqui Province in western Panama.

The Panama Canal Treaties
The 1977 Panama Canal Treaties entered into force on October 1, 1979. They replaced the 1903 Hay/Bunau-Varilla Treaty between the United States and Panama, and all other U.S.-Panama agreements concerning the Panama Canal, which were in force on that date. The treaties comprise a basic treaty governing the operation and defense of the Canal from October 1, 1979 to December 31, 1999 (Panama Canal Treaty) and a treaty guaranteeing the permanent neutrality of the Canal (Neutrality Treaty).

The details of the arrangements for U.S. operation and defense of the Canal under the Panama Canal Treaty are spelled out in separate implementing agreements. The Canal Zone and its government ceased to exist when the treaties entered into force and Panama assumed jurisdiction over Canal Zone territories and functions, a process, which was finalized on December 31, 1999.

Important: Travel to Panama may require a travel visa. Whether a visa is required for travel depends on citizenship and purpose of journey. Please be sure to review Travisa's Panama visa instructions for details. Visa instructions for other countries are available on our do I need a visa page.

Country Statistics

Full country name: Republic of Panama
Capital city: Panama City
Area: 75,420 sq km
Population: 3,510,045
Ethnic groups: mestizo
Languages: Spanish
Religions: Roman Catholic 85%, Protestant 15%
Government: constitutional democracy
Chief of State: President Ricardo MARTINELLI Berrocal
Head of Government: President Ricardo MARTINELLI Berrocal
GDP: 50.61 billion
GDP per captia: 14,100
Annual growth rate: 10.6%
Inflation: 5.9%
Agriculture: bananas, rice, corn, coffee, sugarcane, vegetables
Major industries: construction, brewing, cement and other construction materials, sugar milling
Natural resources: copper, mahogany forests, shrimp, hydropower
Location: Central America, bordering both the Caribbean Sea and the North Pacific Ocean, between Colombia and Costa Rica
Trade Partners - imports: Japan 23.5%, China 23%, Singapore 18.1%, US 13%, South Korea 6%