Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Panama's Good Value Lures Americans in Search of the Good Life


Live Like a King for Dollars a Day

Panama's Good Weather, Good Beaches, Good Value Lures Americans in Search of the Good Life


PANAMA CITY, Panama, Nov. 2, 2006 —
- Joe Urby and his wife, Stacey Waldren, call it their four-year plan. They live in San Antonio, Texas, with their three children. But when their youngest son heads off to college in four years, the Urbys plan to pull up stakes in Texas and head to Panama.
"We want to make some decisions now, so that four years from now we've got a whole new life planned out for us," says Joe, a self-employed businessman.
Watch the story tonight on "Nightline" at 11:30 p.m. ET.
At age 47, Urby and Waldren are too young to think of retiring. They do not plan to move to this small Central American country to sit idly by the sea.
"My plan is really to take over my life again and for us to reinvent our life," says
Waldren and Urby are just two of 250 people who paid close to $1,000 to attend a four-day conference in Panama City, Panama, on the secrets of retiring -- or reinventing life -- in exotic locales like Panama. The conference is sponsored by a group called International Living, which says it is in the business of helping people make their dreams come true. Most of the attendees are Americans.
"We have the retirees or people who are thinking about retiring," says Suzan Haskins, International Living's resident Panama specialist as she checks off the different groups at the conference. "We have the second-home market. We also have just pure investors. All are people who are looking for an opportunity to buy something they can't buy in the United States."
And that's the common thread here: affordable retirement, affordable investment.

Avoiding 'Poverty or Worse'

Take a trip 45 minutes out of Panama City to the seaside community of Coronado, and Panama's appeal becomes obvious. Fred Morris, a retired minister, and Ron Davidson, a former computer programmer, take a spin in a golf cart at sunset. Davidson and his wife have just built a three-bedroom home that backs onto a PGA-certified golf course. The beach is a few blocks away, the club swimming pool is just down the street, so are the riding stables.
In Florida, this gated-community lifestyle would be within reach only for millionaires, but here the mathematics are very different.
Fred bought his five-bedroom home earlier this year for $160,000. In Panama, Davidson and his wife have discovered they can live like a king and queen for less than a princely sum. They paid cash for their home, and their monthly expenses -- including two cars, insurance, food, a daily maid and a gardener -- come to just
"I couldn't afford to live in Orlando where I was," says Fred. "On my pension, I simply couldn't. It would have been poverty or worse, whereas down here we are living a very comfortable life on the same amount of money."
For years, small numbers of adventurous Americans have migrated south to Mexico or Costa Rica in search of affordable and exotic retirement alternatives.
But today, as the baby boom generation contemplates retirement, moving to Latin America has become an increasingly appealing option. The reason: Future retirees look at their bank accounts and prospective pensions and realize they simply don't add up.
"I personally don't want to work until I'm 65 or 70 years old to try and depend on a social security program that may not be there," says Urby. "I'd rather work to be 50 years old and reinvent myself in a different type of business or enterprise in a Latin American
country and only need half as much income to live off of. That's exciting."
And that explains why the skyline of Panama City is itself being reinvented almost overnight. This city of just a million inhabitants now has 30 new condo projects under construction and another 70 approved, including two waterfront towers that will be 100 floors high.

Political Calm and Profitable Canal

Developer José Bern steps off the construction elevator on the 17th floor of condo tower shooting skyward. In a few months his Grand Bay Tower will cap at 27 floors.
The condos here are all sold. Bern says he didn't even have time to open a sales trailer or launch a marketing campaign. The inquiries flooded in over the Internet, and 95 percent of the buyers were Americans.
The United States has invaded Panama several times: with armies. The current American invasion has
been much calmer but equally surprising. Bern says it began quietly about three years ago, with one or two inquiries from Americans a month. Now it is constant.
Why Panama? There is terrible poverty here, but by Latin American standards Panama is relatively safe and politically stable. The U.S. dollar is the currency, so there is no need to convert. And many of the doctors are U.S. trained. It helps that dinner can be had for $10 or less. A daily maid costs $150 a month.
This country of 3 million is best known for the 51-mile canal that allows ships to pass from the Atlantic to the Pacific in just hours. When the United States handed control of the canal to the Panamanians in 1999 there were ominous predictions of failure.
Instead, the canal is busier than ever, and its safety record is better than ever. Last year it paid a dividend of more than $400 million to the Panamanian government. Which explains why
last month the people of Panama enthusiastically approved a referendum that allows the government to proceed with a $5.2 billion expansion that will allow bigger ships and more ships to make the crucial crossing. That is certain to bring more jobs and more investment.

'More Difficult If You Can't Speak the Language'

What about the fine print? Suzan Haskins, the International Living representative in Panama reminds prospective buyers that this is a foreign country. The official language is Spanish.
"It's more difficult here if you don't speak the language," she says. "You will find that everyday things that you did back home are much more difficult here. Here in Panama everybody speaks English at the bank, but having a worker come into your house and trying to tell him what's wrong with your washing machine or trying to get your telephone service fixed or something like that, those little
things are much more difficult if you are in a place that you don't speak the language."
Haskins says this kind of retirement is for Americans with a sense of adventure.
"I think most people who do it have already traveled," she says. "A lot of people have lived in different places around the world or they have taken vacations in foreign countries so they already kind of know what to expect."

Distance Is the Downside

As dusk settles over Coronado, Fred Morris and Ron and Mayra Davidson share a beer and reflect on their choices.
For Fred, the move has been easy. He was a minister in several Latin Americans countries and he speaks fluent Spanish. Mayra Davidson is from Panama, so for her this is a homecoming.
Although Panama City is just three hours from Miami and Houston, Ron Davidson says the hardest part for him is
being away from family.
"The downside is that our kids are in the States and our grandkids are in the States, so we don't get to see them often," says Ron. "It's a bigger price than we thought."
Fred Morris misses his family too, but he says that with a daughter in Washington and a son Oklahoma City, he didn't get to see his family more than once a year when he was in Orlando. Now, he says, the entire family has a free place in the tropical sun when they come to visit in Panama.
"We just love the place," says Fred. "My wife and I, we couldn't dream of a better place."
Are they on the leading edge of a new American invasion here?
"We fear that," says Fred Morris with a wide grin. "We fear it."
They all laugh as they look around and reflect on their reinvented lives.

Travel Panama
The mix of warm weather and affordable housing is luring a growing number of Americans who are relocating to Panama. (Kathryn Cook/AP Photo)

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