BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Thursday, 6 December 2007, 14:06 GMT
Sun and secrecy lure of Panama
princess cruise
The Panama Canal remains at the centre of the country's economy

The mystery disappearance - and shock reappearance - of canoeist John Darwin has people wondering about his apparent choice of hideaway haven - Panama.

The story has put the Central American nation in the spotlight.

For Britons looking to start a new life, the lure of Panama extends beyond the 300-plus sunny days a year in the wisp of a country that lies at the crossroads of north and south America.

Once considered the world's premier tax haven, Panama still has much to offer those looking for a retirement below the radar.

After a swift military intervention by the United States in 1989 to remove former ally Manuel Noriega from power, the country has worked to rebuild its reputation as a safe haven for business, trusts and shipping interests.

With political stability restored, Panama once again attracts foreigners with sizeable bank balances.

Matt Coward, senior tax adviser with accountants Blick Rothenberg, said the country's financial advisors prided themselves on their discretion.

'Difficulty tracing'

"One of the things you will find with the Panamanian accountants and lawyers who will set up companies, trusts and accounts is that they take great pride in the fact their affairs remain confidential."

Mr Coward said that if the authorities in the UK wanted to trace or access money sent to Panama, they would not have an easy time of it.

"The UK authorities would have difficulty tracing money into Panamanian trusts, companies and accounts," he said.

To maintain secrecy, the government allows numbered bank accounts with no names attached and sets fines of 5,000 and up to six months in jail for anyone who discloses banking information. The only exception is for suspected drug smugglers.

As for lifestyle, websites abound with advice on moving to Panama, and estate agents offer luxury apartments for as little as 30,000.

The country has also become a centre for medical tourism, thanks to the large English-speaking population and state-of-the-art facilities.

Despite a reputation for lax enforcement on tax matters, Panama is not popular with most UK-based investors looking for an offshore tax shelter, primarily because of the distance from the UK, Mr Coward said.

"We have plenty of clients who appreciate tax havens but we tend to look to the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man," he said, adding that the Channel Islands were more open in their information sharing than Panama.

panama map

While the nation of 3.3 million does have income tax, it is only payable on locally-earned money, meaning expats can import as much cash as they want tax free.

Other advantages for those looking to relocate include import duty exemptions for bringing in possessions, including an exemption which allows retired people to import one car every two years duty-free.

The country has a dedicated "Retire to Panama" programme that invites expats over the age of 45 to live in the country as long as they can demonstrate a monthly income of just 200 and a further 35 for dependent family members.

Country profile: Panama
25 Aug 07 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Panama
25 Aug 07 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific