Thursday, June 07, 2007

Term of Tourist Visa reduced to 30 days

... or how to shoot the hen which lays the golden eggs...

Law 15 of 2007, entered into force upon its publication on May 25, 2007, which reduces the duration of Tourist Visas from 90 days, with a 90 day extension (originally in force since 1995), to 30 days with a 60 day extension. While European Union Schengen Treaty citizens are exempt from a visa requirement to enter and US citizens are sold a $5 "tourism card" as reciprocity visa upon entry, all foreigners are subject to this 30 day limit. The Immigration website has a list of the current visa requirements by country.

The Law was submitted as Bill 292 of 2007 "whereby measures are enacted for the protection of citizen safety" by Olga Golcher, Minister of Government, in April 3, 2007. The Bill had measures to counter the rising power of juvenile gangs, and buried into the text was a new definition of Tourist Visas:

Artículo 36. El numeral 1 del artículo 1 del Decreto Ley 16 de 1960 queda así:
Artículo 1. Los extranjeros que ingresen al territorio nacional serán clasificados como
turistas, transeúntes, viajeros en tránsito, viajeros en tránsito directo, visitantes
temporales e inmigrantes:
1. Son turistas los que llegan con fines exclusivos de recreo u observación por un
lapso de treinta días, prorrogable hasta por sesenta días.

Over-zealousness at all levels

Obviously, nobody foresaw the effect this will have on residential tourism, since it takes more than 30 days to have a feel for the country, look at properties, purchase a home, and THEN decide to apply for a residence visa. The April 18 "Technical Report" made by legislative staffer Agapito González Gómez says that "the costs of the implementation of the bill will be compensated with the benefits that its special measures produce. However, given the provisional character of said measures, it would be convenient to take into consideration that all the costs of its application, in the end, may exceed the material benefits they may produce." Translation: We are worried about gang warfare and we have doubts about whether increased prosecutorial powers may have lasting benefits (forget about the tourism aspect).

The Technical Report recommended calling to committee hearings several government entities and child welfare instutions (UNICEF Panama, Alianza Ciudadana Pro Justicia, Pastoral Penitenciaria) and NGOs in general but flatly excluded the Panama Tourism Institute IPAT, Ministry of Commerce and did not identify real estate and tourism industyr associations. Eventually, Union Nacional de Abogadas, Asociacion Panama Verde, Consejo Nacional de Juventud, Creation Associates International and other child welfare and criminal law groups participated in the Committee hearings. The April 19 Minority Report by opposition legislator Jose Blandon only mentions "the lonely immigration provision" to criticize the PRD for not voting on an Immigration Bill submitted in 2004 (which also reduced the 90 day tourism term).

Only when the final Law was published in the official gazette as Law 15 of 2007 "whereby measures for the speeding of the prosecution in ordinary criminal procedures and special procedures for criminal liability of teenagers and other measures are enacted" (in Spanish "que dicta medidas para la agilización de la instrucción sumarial en los procesos penales ordinarios y en los especiales de responsabilidad penal de adolescentes, y otras disposiciones") and La Prensa printed the results of a press conference by the Immigration director did most of the non-criminal law community learn about the 30-day tourist visa.

3 days later, the Tourism Minister issued a press release announcing that "the project “Tourism, a reason to create business ventures and decrease poverty” was launched by Minister of Tourism Ruben Blades before hundreds of micro-entrepreneurs at the inaugural ceremony of the AMPYME National Meeting that took place at the ATLAPA Convention Center." We presume that the 30 day limit will discourage those who may take longer than that to buy a property and thereby help businesses which reduce poverty. The Ministry has a "Contact Us" page where comments can be sent.

More legal trivia

In the haste to approve the law (52 days), Article 3 of Law Decree 16 of 1960 on Immigration was left without alteration, which provides that
"tourism cards will be valid to remain in the country for ninety (90) days until completing one hundred and eighty (180) days".,
as well as Article 5 ("The Panamanian Consulates shall issue tourism cards valid for ninety (90) days, after paying five" balboas). Under Article 14 of the Civil Code ("Cuando las disposiciones tengan una misma especialidad o generalidad y se hallaren en un mismo Código, se preferirá la disposición consignada en el artículo posterior"), these 2 provisions prevail over the amendment to Article 1, so... tourist cards (not necessarily those tourist visas without a card) should be granted for 90 days...

The other side of Panama friendlyness

So what can a violator of the 30-day rule expect? Tourists exceeding their visa term are apprehended and taken to a small cell at the Immigration offices to determine their status. In the best case, their lawyer is allowed 24 hours to submit all papers for a visa where he/she can qualify for. In the worst case, it would be a weekend or evening, so the tourist is taken to the untouristy Directorate of Police Investigations (DIIP). Depending on the perception of how dangerous the tourist is, he/she will be held separately from the other violent criminals held for felonies from all over the city. It is not the Turkish Express, but certainly not a night at Waldorf. If the tourist does not qualify for any visa, he/she is deported and not allowed back into the country.

In the meantime, the government still refuses to demand visas from countries with high immigration rates, such as Colombia. Actual criminals will not be deterred and will continue using the shipping lanes into Colon and other routes to enter the country. A user-friendly system for granting of multiple-entry tourist visas for financially sound citizens of Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Colombia (just show passport, tax return and valid credit cards at the consulate to get the equivalent of B-1/B-2 US visa) is a necessity to bring investment into the country and discourage criminal elements.

Options when being close to the end of the 30-day period

So the legal alternatives when the 30-day term comes are:

1) Separate 2 mornings at Panama Immigration and file for a final 60-day extension form along with
a. Valid passport, tourist visa/card and 2 copies of its ID page and Panama entry stamp
b. Return airplane ticket valid for a flight in 60 days or more
c. Letter from Panamanian or legal resident who will sponsor and assume responsibility for the applicant, with copy of the signor's ID.
d. Proof of economic solvency of the applicant or the sponsor : tax return, credit card or bank reference letter showing more than $500 monthly available.
e. 3 passport-size pictures
f. Magazines and newspapers to read while you wait

2) File an appeal under Articles 3, 5 and 86 of Law Decree 16 of 1960,

3) Head to Costa Rica, where a tourist visa for US, European Union / Schengen and Central American citizens lasts 90 days Sounds brutal, but that is how tourists think and their pockets move.