Export Quarterly / Winter 2001
By Larry Luxner
PANAMA CITY -- Herman Bern, one of Panama's leading real-estate developers, wants to turn his country into the tourist mecca of Central America. His company, Empresas Bern, has already built three luxury hotels and recently inaugurated the Gamboa Rainforest Resort -- a 340-acre nature getaway located just 17 miles from downtown Panama City.
Yet compared to neighboring Costa Rica, Panama is relatively unknown as a tourist destination. Its official tourism promotion budget is only a fraction of Costa Rica's, which earns over $1 billion a year in hard currency from the million or so foreigners who visit the country annually. Especially now that things have slowed down considerably, Panama needs all the help it can get.
"Our whole economy is sluggish. We need more tourists to come to Panama," said Bern, interviewed at his Ventas y Projectos S.A. subsidiary only a few blocks from the five-star Hotel Miramar Inter-Continental, which he owns. "Most people have no idea what Panama is all about. They need to know that we have a lot more than the canal."
The Miramar Inter-Continental is by far the most important property in Bern's portfolio. The 25-story hotel and marina represents a $35 million investment; the adjacent 52-floor Miramar Towers, which have 140 luxury condominum units, added another $40 million to the total price tag.
"For more than 20 years, we've been building projects in Panama -- high-rises as well as subdivisions," said Bern. "This country has gone through a lot of ups and downs."
One of Panama's biggest "downs" was the Noriega dictatorship, which stifled investment and sent many Panamanian businessmen -- including Bern -- into semi-exile.
"During the Noriega years, there wasn't much to do here, so I moved my family to Ocala, Fla.," he said. "There we built a 500-home project, Majestic Oaks, just west of the city. At one time we even had our kids in school in Ocala."
Bern, 54, earned his engineering degree in Panama and went on to get a master's from Cambridge in England. Soon after establishing his company, he built his first hotel -- the Suites Ambassador -- in Panama City's downtown banking district. With four hotel properties, the company now has annual sales of nearly $80 million. It also has 800 hospitality employees on its payroll, not to mention another 500 to 1,500 working in construction at any given time.
"We have four hotels and are working on some other ideas which are on the drawing board," Bern told Seis Continentes. "For instance, we're talking with ARI (the Inter-Oceanic Regional Authority) about building a retirement community of maybe 250 units for retired Florida schoolteachers. We're also building a 44-story residential tower, the Vista Marina, across the street from the Miramar Inter-Continental. In addition, we're doing a shopping center in Colón. Projects like these are what keeps me moving all day long."
Bern's newest hotel venture is the Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a $32 million jungle entertainment center located in the former Canal Zone, on land the United States recently gave back to Panama as part of the 1977 Panama Canal treaties signed between the two countries.
The Gamboa project, inaugurated Jun. 9, 2000, boasts 110 brand-new rooms and 100 renovated one- and two-bedroom villas in 25 buildings dating from the 1930s.
"Our vision brings together the preservation of nature and the history of Panama, from a very unique site as is Gamboa, while presenting our most important treasure, the Panama Canal, together with environmental education and the adventure of ecotourism," said Bern in his inaugural speech. "It has been a great challenge for us to combine all of these elements into a tourism investment venture in the middle of the tropical rainforest, and to turn this financial effort into one of the principal motors for the sustained tourism industry of our country -- together with the very clear mission that this ambitious project will be a vehicle of strong financial return for its investors."
Gamboa, a publicly traded venture, is located not far from the Chagres River, near the Panama Canal and the picturesque town of Gamboa. The resort sits smack in the middle of Panama's 55,000-acre Soberania National Park, surrounded by large tracts of lowland tropical rainforest that nourish thriving plant and animal populations.
The resort is located 25 miles from both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Its amenities include a spa, a marina, seven meeting rooms with over 14,000 square feet of meetgin space, an additional 4,300-square-foot activity center and outdoor lawn reception area., a wood-paneled library, a souvenir shop and tours of Isla Barro Colorado, a tropical island owned by the Smithsonian Institution.
"In fact, a percentage of the proceeds from our exhibits go back to the Smithsonian," said Bern. "We also arrange for our guests to make donations, if they want. They can even add donations to their room bills. We also have an agreement to provide internships for students doing research programs."