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Old February 23rd, 2009, 05:48 PM   #1
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$ 2 billion investment in Las Perlas

A new pearl forms in the Pacific

Luis Miguel Blanco / The Panama Post
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The Sustainable Tourism Chamber of the Pearl Islands presented many plans and promises to the press.

The idyllic Pearl Islands Archipelago located in the Bay of Panama, about 40 miles south of Panama City, will be reborn through a $2 billion investment, it was recently announced. Five businesses have united to form The Sustainable Tourism Chamber of the Pearl Islands (CTSLP), which will convert a group of the islands into an international tourism paradise over the next 15 years.

George Novey, head of the group and its first president, announced that in the coming weeks the government will officially grant them legal status to operate.

Novey’ hotel Hacienda del Mar is located on San Jose Island, one of the four islands that will be part of the impressive development project. The others are Saboga Island, currently part of the Grupo del Sol development group; Viveros Island, run by the Viveros Resort; and Isla del Rey, home to Cuna de Vida and Punta Coco .

According to Novey, the principals began the process in 2008, with the goal of drawing up a master plan for rational development that doesn't encroach upon the natural beauty of the islands.

About the islands

The most famous of the Pearl Islands is Contadora. Following a request by the United States, and the subsequent permission from Panama's de facto leader at the time, General Omar Torrijos, the Shah of Iran took up residence here after being overthrown in 1979.

Contadora also hosted the negotiations which led to the peaceful solutions to the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran civil wars.For several decades, it relied on one hotel and one runway, currently being renovated. There are now other smaller hotels as well as B&B’s.

Another island in the archipelago is the historic Taboga Island, which, at the beginning of the sixteenth century was the site where the Spanish Conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro, planned the conquest of the Inca Empire, the most powerful in South America at that time. It is also the birthplace of Saint Rose of Lima, as well as a temporary home to French artist Paul Gauguin.

The other islands have remained in relative obscurity inhabited by people of little means.

One exception is San Jose Island, which is home to Novey's resort hotel Hacienda del Mar. The island was used during World War II as a testing ground for chemical weapons, such as mustard gas. The chemical residue has been completely removed and the island was declared fit for human habitation.

The Pearl Islands are a refuge and egg-hatching area for five of the seven turtle species in the process of extinction. It is also a reproduction haven for the humpback whale, habitat for the famous whale shark and numerous other species native to the area.

The Pearl Islands get their name from the once abundant pearls that skilled free divers would retrieve from the floor of the crystal-clear Pacific.

In its master plan The Panama Tourism Authority (ATP) has designated the area a special marine management and tourist interest zone.ama

A couple of years ago, the National Environmental Authority of the Republic of Panama (ANAM) did not properly supervise certain projects, which led to the government’s intervention to protect the islands' natural surroundings. Clashes between the construction workers' unions on one of the islands ended with a policeman killing one of the workers.

With that chapter now over Novey noted that the islands can offer tourism, leisure, ecotourism, and also cultural history. Pre-Columbian petro glyphs chronicle a somewhat advanced indigenous population.

The new group of investors is presently conducting a search for a consulting firm that will draw up a comprehensive environmental management plan that allows the islands' inhabitants to share in the promised prosperity. Current residents of the islands face drinking water supply problems, as well as burdensome maritime and air transport systems.

There are seven communities on the islands; mostly, fishing with poor health conditions and education, as well as problems with electricity supply and waste water processing.

According to Novey the project will create job opportunities during the construction phase and also encourage the growth of small and medium-sized service businesses. The group has already donated a hospital bed and defibrillator to the island’s small medical facility.

Sustainable development

Novey announced that all the partners signed a solemn commitment restricting them from touching more than 25 percent of the area's virgin land. Exceeding this limit would force them to pay restitution.

The group has already committed to provide 20 percent of the project's energy from alternative sources, ban any use of the archipelago’s sand for construction purposes, and starting in June, begin to recycle waste products.

Other protective measures will include banning the use of sirens or lights that could disturb the turtle, whale and dolphin habitats. The group is well aware that protecting these original inhabitants of the islands plays an integral part in the project's success.

Novey explained that he will renovate his hotel on San Jose Island and build luxury accommodations nearby to be used as second homes. He also has plans for new hotels designed to attract a wealthy and cultured tourist attuned to environmentally friendly projects.

Each section of the project will need an airport, and Novey indicated that there is a company interested in setting up a fast, modern ferry service between the islands and the mainland, with pricing on a par with airline tickets.

At the moment, there are smaller boats used by the indigenous population at a lower cost, he reported.

Novey added that the group's plans also take into account how the world financial crisis will impact the project, but remained optimistic that everything would be completed on time.

He was confident that the financial crisis will not affect this tourist development given the high purchasing power of its target market.

"The crisis has not impacted sales thus far, but we need to stay vigilant. For now, there are no plans to cut any development," commented Novey.

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