ISLA SABOGA, Panama – Three years ago, real estate developer Armel González’s career in Nicaragua came to a screeching halt when he went before TV cameras and exposed an alleged $4 million extortion attempt linked to the Sandinista government.
The Sandinistas did not take kindly to González’s public denouncement – which he backed with secretly recorded tapes – and launched a vicious slander campaign against him in retaliation. The Nicaraguan developer was accused by Sandinista media of a wild assortment of unsubstantiated offenses and blacklisted by government institutions, making it impossible for him to continue to do business in Nicaragua.
So, for the second time in as many Sandinista governments, González left Nicaragua and went into exile.
Three years later, González says Nicaragua’s loss has become Panama’s gain. Today, he’s working with some of Panama’s top real estate developers to turn the previously untouched jungle island of Isla Saboga into what he claims will become a world-class eco- and medical tourism destination within the next decade.
“I’m doing in Panama what I wanted to do in Nicaragua,” González says, while driving a golf cart up a recently carved jungle road on Isla Saboga, 40 kilometers southeast of Panama City.
A stone’s throw from the popular Isla Contadora, one of 100 tropical islands that form Panama’s remote PearlIslands archipelago, Isla Saboga is best known as the desolate and picturesque strip of palm-treed, white-sanded jungle island where the U.S. hit TV series “Survivor” was filmed several years ago.
But within a decade from now, “surviving” on Isla Saboga might mean checking your investment portfolio on your laptop while sipping a daiquiri on the ocean-view deck of a half-million-dollar home.
In association with several big-name developers, including the K Group, the local development group that’s building the Trump Ocean Club in Panama City, González claims that within eight years Isla Saboga will be a $1.5 billion investment project with 2,500 condominium and five-star hotel units scattered around the island, overlooking 22 unique beach coves, each with its own beach club.
The project, according to González’s master plan, will include a 150-slip marina, several hotels, spas and numerous residential condo communities, each of which will be constructed by independent developers.
González has already purchased a $2 million luxury high-speed ferry that will start making daily runs from Panama City once the Trump Ocean Club finishes building its island clubhouse – complete with pool, restaurant and spa – at the end of 2010, according to plans.
“This will be like the Bahamas and the Galápagos combined,” González says. “Isla Saboga is calling investors to come create a new destination in paradise.”
The concept of the island, he says, is that it will be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable, while promoting a community dedicated to healthy, quality living.
The 100 families that already live on the island will also be incorporated as an integral part of the project, González says. Instead of being used only as a source of cheap labor for construction and support services, members of the local community are being given microcredits to start small tourism businesses to allow them to become partners in the island’s development, he says.
“The idea is to give them microcredit so they can start small businesses renting bikes, kayaks or horses to tourists, or open a small restaurant or shop and grow with the island,” González says.
The developer has already helped the small local community improve its schoolhouse by putting in air-conditioning and a computer lab, and is also giving residents funds for home improvements.
Many locals are also employed in the construction of the first homes being built in the first two phases of development, known as El Encanto and Blue Bird, which just opened for sale last week and are already selling, priced at $250,000 to $299,000.
A more expensively priced phase at the nearby beach of Coral Cove, set on a jungle hilltop that looks like the set from “JurassicPark,” is set to go on the market in the coming weeks, González says.
Though González will sell individual lots to end buyers, he’s mostly hoping to sell larger swaths of land to other developers who want to subdivide and build homes for resale. He says his main job is to put in basic infrastructure – roads, sewage, water, electricity and a master development plan – for others to come and build homes.
Though he is building the first homes as a “tease” to show other developers what the island could be, he says, he has no intention of developing the whole thing himself; that, he’ll leave to the house builders.
In fact, of the 160 hectares he owns on Isla Saboga, González is developing only 12 himself. The rest is for sale in virgin form, plus the access roads, water, electricity and sewage hookup he promises to install.
“I create the tease,” he says. “Developers do the work.”
Still, González says he’s so confident of the product, he’s offering buyers a deal in which if they put 50 percent down on a plot of land, he’ll refund that 50 plus 8 percent interest after one year if they are not happy with their purchase. He says he’s confident no one will want the refund, because once the electricity, roads and water are connected to the property, it will already have appreciated to the point that they’ll be losing money on their investment if they ask for a refund plus 8 percent.
“I’ve set this up so that if the investor knows what he’s doing, he’ll make a 500 percent return on his investment here,” González says. “And if they don’t know what they’re doing, they’ll make only 100 percent return.”
For potential investors curious about visiting Isla Saboga, González has partnered with the company Cuna de Vida, which operates a 174-foot luxury seagoing vessel with 31 cabins. The ship leaves Panama City every Saturday for overnight tours of the PearlIslands, anchoring off the coast of Isla Saboga.
The tour, including four meals and stately lodging, is $235 per person. The ship also offers breakfast-and-lunch day tours for $95, and passengers are dropped off on Isla Contadora in the afternoon.