TBY talks to Ambassador Carmen Gisela Vergara, Executive Director of PROPANAMA, on investment promotion, recovering tourism, and expectations for the coming year.

What new roles or added value does PROPANAMA bring to the country's investment promotion capacity?

PROPANAMA operates under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, allowing us to work with the foreign service, namely Panamanian embassies and consulates. Their mission now includes trade and investment in addition to politics and diplomacy, and they act as our eyes and ears. They help us find potential investors and develop our missions to those countries. They also help us with our exports, finding the correct buyers within their assigned markets. This helps us immensely in our duties, as this allows us to cover many more markets with deeper insight and accuracy.

How would you assess the organization's inaugural year, and how has the global pandemic changed your investment promotion strategy?

2020 has been a challenging year to say the least, and it has changed dramatically in a short period of time. We have faced other crisis successfully, but this is a crisis of another kind. I do not believe that we will see another gamechanger of this level in our lifetime. Everything will change, and we must be prepared to adapt. When we created our work plan in 2019, we had a list of projects and activities planned to attract investment and promote exports. We have had to completely revise this plan because we couldn't hold live trade fairs or bring commercial missions into and out of Panama to attract FDI. We don't know exactly when we will be able to hold such events again and we still do not know when countries will open up completely again. Fortunately, the pandemic came at a time when the world has the technology to survive. Even 10 years ago, we did not have the technology to support our new strategy, with social networks. We created a few platforms to offer services to our stakeholders, allowing us to continue working on our Mission. My staff keeps working every day thanks to these digital platforms and we are as active and full of projects as we were before the pandemic. We started a series of digital business round tables, which have been successful. We held the first one in May with over 300 business meetings between Panamanian and European companies. The second one will be held from the 17th to the 21 of August so that companies from Panama, can do business with companies from Mexico, Central America, Chile, Colombia and the Caribbean. We also have a platform for virtual fairs. In the first virtual fair, over 150 Panamanian companies participated with interactive 3D stands, and within a week we had over 24,000 viewers from 68 countries around the world. On the investment promotion side, we are also developing virtual site selection tours for potential investors, meetings wih bilateral chambers and the Panama Day, were companies have the opportunity to tell us about their business interest in Panama and we can give them one on one time to realize their investments.. We also have had to rethink our strategy for some sectors, depending on how deeply they were impacted by the pandemic. For example, tourism has been hit hard and we are working with the Tourism Authority to help in its recovery.

Apart from Panama's traditional trade and investment partners, which countries or regions represent the highest potential for Panama, in terms of attracting FDI or as an export market?

Panama has 19 FTA's that link us to over 60 markets around the world and 1.3 billion potential consumers. We recently approved our agreement with South Korea, and last year we approved an FTA with Israel. We want our companies to use these new agreements to their advantage. Even during the pandemic, we signed an agreement with the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of Israel – FCC, to strengthen our investment and trade relationship. The Middle East, particularly the United Arab Emirates, from Dubai, is another area of interest for us. We were set to participate in Dubai's Expo 2020 before it was delayed, and we have already been exploring the potential of Panamanian products for that market. In each country, our office narrows down 10 products from Panama with the highest potential and puts them in a Catalog to help our Embassies promote them. This is one of the ways we are efficiently adding the most value to our stakeholders.

What is your outlook for the rest of 2020?

As we've seen already, everything about the pandemic has been very unpredictable so far. As for PROPANAMA, we will stay on course. We have our Mission, and we need to continue to promote Panama. The pandemic will change some things permanently, and we must all be prepared for this. Live events and travel will suffer for quite a while. That being said, according to some reports, due to the makeup of Panamanian economy, Panama will have a strong recovery by 2022 as compared to the rest of the region. This is a source of optimism, and we are working hard as a country to make it come true.