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New expanded Panama Canal opens

The new Panama Canal locks were opened over the weekend, with the COSCO Shipping PANAMA becoming the first “Neopanamax” commercial transit.
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The PANAMA, previously the Andronikos, has a length of 300m, beam of 48.25m and a capacity of 9,472 TEU. Despite opening two years late, the transit of the PANAMA was a moment of celebration for Panama, the canal is the life blood of its economy, and it can now handle vessels carrying nearly three times as much cargo as previoulsy. 

Despite all the controversies of the construction process, the project is done. “This is an achievement that all of us Panamanians should be proud of” President Juan Carlos Varela said at the inauguration ceremony. "Today marks a historic moment for Panama, for our hemisphere and the world.”

So far the Panama Canal Authority has taken reservations for 170 Neopanamax ships, including commitments from two new liner services and a reservation for the first LNG vessel, which will transit in late July. “Our customers care that their supply chain is reliable and that they have a diversity of shipping options. And the Canal has always been reliable; today, we offer the world new shipping options and trade routes,” said Canal administrator Jorge Luis Quijano.

Quijano added that the canal expansion is “the tip of the iceberg in making Panama once again the logistics centre of the Americas”. Exactly how that will play out, however, is far from clear. It was notable that the COSCO PANAMA was not sailing full with Asian exports for the US market, but heading in the opposite direction, lightly loaded with containers being repositioned from Piraeus back to China. 

The Panama Canal Authority, however, is pushing the message that the canal is not just an artery for bigger ships to flow through, it forecasts 80% of vessels transiting will make a call at one of the terminals on either side, more tightly integrating Panama into regional trade flows. 

Among the foreign dignitaries in Panama for the opening was a strong contingent of US East Coast state governors, who are looking to the Canal expansion to boost their port prospects. The Georgia contingent, headed by Gov. Nathan Deal emphasised that the Port of Savannah is the leading East Coast trading partner with the Panama Canal. “The close ties Georgia and Panama share have helped to make the Port of Savannah the success it is today. I congratulate the Panama Canal Authority on its success and look forward to the completion of our own harbour deepening project,” said Gov. Deal.

For the East Coast Governors, the canal expansion is a chance to leverage economies of scale and extend their competitive reach into the US midwest. This process, however, will take several more years to play out: the Savannah harbour deepening project will not be completed until 2018, Charleston’s dredging project sometime in 2019 and Bayonne Bridge raising project in New York by late 2017.

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