A new chapter for the Panama Canal – 102 years on
Late June saw another historic landmark in world shipping with the completion of the $5.4bn project to enlarge the Panama Canal and bolster the trade route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. This follows the opening of the ‘new’ Suez Canal only last year, with both projects intended to breathe new life into these historic canals which both had their origins in the 19th century.
While the Suez Canal was opened for business in 1869 and rapidly modernised for its ‘relaunch’ in 2015, things have not been quite so straightforward for the Panama Canal. This new project was due to be completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the opening of the canal in 2014, but has taken eight years to reach its conclusion. The original canal was started by the French in 1881, but was only completed by the US 33 years later.
At the opening of this new chapter in the 102 year operation of the canal, Panama’s President Varela spoke of his pride in a project delivered by his own country, whereas the original canal project had been a triumph for the US. However, reports were that the atmosphere around the opening ceremony did not quite match the feverish excitement back in 1999 when the canal was handed over from the USA to the Panamanians, following the treaties agreed by President Jimmy Carter back in 1977.
Perhaps that is due to the delays in completing the expansion project, including technical concerns about the massive new locks required to accommodate vessels with triple the capacity of those handled previously. Or perhaps it is due to the future uncertainty of the canal’s monopoly over the Atlantic-Pacific ‘shortcut’ with plans to be executed for a Chinese-financed 170 mile canal route through nearby Nicaragua.
So while the phrase ‘neo-Panamax ship’ will now enter the lexicon of the shipping industry, marking this exciting new phase in the canal’s evolution, and the Suez Canal might fret over the loss of some business on the trade route between Asia and America as a result, the future success of the Panama Canal is not without its own challenges.
HAMISH ROSS, EDITOR