What Would Panama Be Without The Panama Canal?

The car pulled up slowly and the woman at the wheel took time cutting the engine and unlocking her seat belt.

She looked over at her passenger and smiled. The two were easy together, but older than I had imagined. She was slight in her navy slacks and navy and white striped cotton top that sported gold buttons. He seemed more hesitant in well-tailored slacks and a polo with the immediately recognizable “Master’s” yellow logo on the left corner.

When they entered the office, I smiled quickly. “Did you have any trouble getting here?” I could tell immediately they liked the air conditioning.

Smooth Sailing into Costa del Este

“No, once we got the rental car and onto the highway, finding Costa del Este was simple and fairly quick,” she said warmly. “It’s really easy to get around once you know about the Panapass and Corredor Sur.”

Because we had spoken several times on the phone, I knew she and her husband were looking for both a retirement property and additional residential space for their two children and four grandchildren. They seemed conflicted about just how much space they needed and if they wanted to be closer to the city or further out in the beach communities.

Liz Website Screenshot
I always encourage people to go to my website and read about Panama when researching the possibility of buying property.

“Did you have a chance to look at the website,” I inquired referring to my website which contains a lot of basic information about Panama. https://www.lizlarroquette.com/. “Are you any closer to knowing what properties might be best for you?”

The gentleman spoke quickly, “I was born in Panama and lived here until I was about a year old. I’ve never been back. I always have to write Panama down as my birthplace on forms like getting a passport. My father was in the service and worked as an engineer in the Canal Zone,” he continued without seemingly taking a breath. “I hadn’t thought about Panama much in the last fifty years. I never thought about coming back but we’ve had a bit of a financial setback and all of a sudden Panama looks better and better.” 

Assuming The Business Would Be There

There was a pause and then the woman spoke. “We just always assumed the business would be there. It had always grown. We didn’t watch it enough and we weren’t as nimble as we should have been. We should have sold it, or brought the children in sooner. It’s not going to be there for our children,” she explained. “That boat has sailed and we didn’t get on it.”

I didn’t know exactly how to respond. Should I ask about the business, the available properties, the ages of the grandchildren? I just smiled and waited as they seemed to want to talk. Work through what they were considering. I had plenty of time.

Shifting Markets In A Technological World

“We owned, well we still do own, a check printing business. You know the ones where you can have Mickey Mouse printed on them or maybe some smiling angels. They were very popular,” said the woman as she began looking around at the busy streets just outside the big glass windows. “We didn’t diversify into chip card migration or get into the cloud-based governance, and compliance solutions for banks. We could have. We had the relationships. We just continued to print checks. Then the banks stopped providing so many checks. The color circulars we’d put into the newspapers stopped working. It used to be someone would automatically order 200 checks when they opened an account. Now, they might get 25 checks and never order any more checks,” she stopped and looked over at her husband and smiled.

Most people pay bills on-line or with a debit card so the need for writing checks has sharply declined, leaving the check printing business needing to diversify.

“People don’t write very many checks any more. Grandmothers will send a check in the mail for a child’s birthday or you might have the one-off to the handyman, but we should have looked into providing pre-paid or refillable cards. I remember when people stood in line at the bank to cash their checks, do you know anyone without direct deposit? Even the US Government direct deposits social security payments.”

We spent the next five hours touring and discussing the differences between Casa Bonita, just outside the city and the residences at Royal Palm, located directly on the Pacific Ocean in Coronado-Gorgona, about an hour’s drive from Panama City. Fortunately we were able to take the helicopter to Royal Palm, which gave us more time to tour.

I left them at the bar at the Westin resort in Playa Bonita. They were tired, but satisfied they would be able to purchase two residential units and by customizing the inside they would have both a retirement home and a welcoming place when the children and grandchildren came for a visit.

A Disappearing Golden Egg

I couldn’t help but think about having a good business and the market just changing so dramatically. I wasn’t sure I knew where I might have put my check book. I tried to think about the last time I had actually written a check and couldn’t remember. An unhealthy chicken with a small golden egg came to mind and then I considered the Panama Canal.

Panama, the country, is very dependent on the Canal. Not only is it much of our identify, the money derived from that single revenue stream pays for a lot. The new bridge, the metro system, the educational system, the safety net programs for the elderly are all possible because of the Canal.

For as long as I can remember, there has been talk about the possibility of a canal being built in Nicaragua. Most predictions dismiss the idea as being unrealistic and a nightmare for the environment. It would need to be three times as long as the Panama Canal and cost 50 billon USD. I don’t think we need to worry about a competing canal in Central America, but I do think there might be other threats.

A Shifting Transportation Market

The Hyperloop One pods will move the same cargo containers as is currently being moved through the Panama Canal. Just take a look at the Maersk containers in the background!

Just as the check-writing business shifted, could transporting goods also change that dramatically? I wondered if Panama might consider other options related to the shipping market as opposed to relying on the Canal remaining the cash machine? 

If you study the Virgin Hyperloop One website you’ll see they claim they “will reinvent transportation to eliminate the barriers of distance and time. Hyperloop One will move people and goods, and unlock unprecedented value for governments, businesses, and consumers.” When someone talks about reinventing the transportation of goods, Panama needs to be listening and joining the conversation.

Hyperloop One is a dream of none other than Elon Musk of SpaceX and Tesla fame. Recently, Richard Branson, who has been transforming passenger travel for decades with his series of Virgin travel-related companies, joined Musk and others in taking Hyperloop One to the next level. What started as a three-person team in a Los Angeles garage is now testing sleek pods in the Nevada desert and countries and investors are lining up to make a global network of pod travel a reality.

Changing The Face Of Transportation

The fundamentals of Hyperloop are straightforward: high-speed travel in a low-pressure tube to reduce resistance and drag, and the use of pods, rather than train sets, for on-demand, point to point travel. These tubes will not be limited to a short route from New York to Philadelphia, but rather will span oceans, countries and mountains. Hyperloop One is shooting to span the globe.

Two years ago the Virgin Hyperloop One Global Challenge was announced, which called for comprehensive proposals to build hyperloop networks connecting cities and regions around the world. Eventually more than 2600 teams registered, and 35 proposals from 17 countries were declared winners. Panama was not among the winners, but the route between Mexico City and Guadalajara was. When Hyperloop One goes mainstream, packages and people will travel between the two Mexican cities in 37 minutes as opposed to the five hours and 20 minutes it takes today by truck. The first routes are scheduled to be operational by 2021.

Eight Hours vs. Minutes

Unmanned ships now carry containers in the China Sea and they are being tested for transatlantic voyages. How will that impact the Panama Canal? Will we be ready?

Today, it takes eight hours to traverse the Panama Canal. How will rapid pods moving at 700 miles per hour change the needs of international shipping?

Once I made the leap from people not writing checks, I couldn’t help but think about the driverless trucks they are testing in North America and the unmanned cargo ships recently launched in Shanghai by a consortium working to standardize how unmanned ships will operate.

No Need For Humans At The Dock

The Port of Rotterdam is widely regarded as one of the most technologically developed in the world. Today they have unmanned cranes unloading ships stacked high with containers. If humans are involved at all, they are doing their work, via a joystick, in a sleek office a distance from the ships and containers. How will all this impact Panama?

The Port of Rotterdam, was designed and constructed to be the most technologically advanced and safest in the world automated container handling facility. The largest vessel processed at the port was the Marstal Maersk, which carried 18,300 containers.

When I drive over the Bridge of the Americas or go anywhere near the observation deck at the Miraflores Locks, I am struck by both the people working in the area and the automation of the “mulas” which pull the ships into place.

Meat, But No Need For Livestock

The other day, I met a friend for lunch and he explained he was reading a book called Clean Meat. It seems there are several companies in North America already developing food—everything from milk to steak—without the aid of livestock. Well, just a few cells is now enough. It seems cows may have just achieved the ultimate outsourcing.

“You absolutely can’t tell the difference,” he said, showing me a photo of a tasty-looking hamburger! “I think the chicken looks even better,” he glowed.

“So the containers that go through the Panama Canal won’t be carrying goods like meat and poultry because you can just grow it where it’s going to be consumed. My mind was already back on how various developments could change the face of the Panama Canal!

Clean Meat
Everywhere I turned, my life was changing at a pace so rapid I didn’t feel as though I could keep up. Meat and chicken without livestock, was just a small part of the changes! I mentally made a note to read Clean Meat!

My friend smiled. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Lizzy” he said referring to a nickname few could get away with using. “The Panama Canal will be needed for years to come. And, the good thing is that Panama is rapidly evolving into a service-based economy. Look at all the international companies locating in Costa del Este!”

Rapid Growth In Panama

I nodded, thinking how rapid the growth had been for Panama City. In just a few years it had become the business center of Central America.

“At first I was disappointed the Hyperloop hadn’t chosen any sites in Panama to start building a route,” I said carefully, “and then I realized, it was because we weren’t so over populated. Mexico City is a traffic nightmare and the routes in India were also attempting to control congestion.”

Not So Much On The Fake Burgers!

I still wasn’t sure about eating fake hamburgers, but I did start feeling better about the explosion of technology around the Panama Canal. “Actually things are rocking for Panama,” I continued. “We will always have that gift of geography and however things morph in the shipping and transportation world, we’ll be there along with also being a financial center.”

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