Thousands welcomed the first ship that passed through the newly expanded Panama Canal on Sunday, June 26, despite concerns over Panama Papers and shipping industry.
Thousands of spectators gathered at Cocolí locks outside Panama City to watch a colossal container ship bearing 9,472 containers become the first to officially pass through the newly expanded Panama canal and, hopefully, usher in a new era of trading prosperity for the Central American country.
The opening of the expansion of the 102-year-old landmark after a controversial and delayed $5.25 billion refit comes at a difficult moment for the shipping industry. International trade has slowed as China’s economic growth has stalled. In Egypt the Suez canal – Panama’s main rival – recently lowered tariffs in an attempt to keep its traffic.
But there was little sign of worry as the 158ft-wide (48.2 meters) and 984ft-long (300 meters) Cosco Shipping Panama, approached the Panamanian isthmus on Sunday.
As a few thousand people danced in the stands erected on the banks of the newly constructed Cocolí locks, other Panamanians gathered around large screens placed throughout Panama.
When the ship approached the Cocolí locks, a wild cheer went up. People got to their feet in hopes of getting a view of the ship right before it entered the latest stage of its journey from Greece across the Atlantic and through the Panama canal to the Pacific Ocean.
The special guest section of the opening ceremony, which housed about 3,000 people, was packed with delegations from different states, business associates and heads of different authorities and organizations.
“This new transit route is the tip of the iceberg in making Panama once again the logistic center of the Americas,” Jorge Luis Quijano, canal administrator, said on Sunday. “And it represents a significant opportunity for the countries of the region to improve their infrastructure [and] increase their exports.”
During the early morning ceremony, a moment of silence was dedicated to people who died building the canal.
The canal operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 35 to 40 ships are expected to pass through every day. Each trip takes about eight to 10 hours.
The expansion mainly consists of building two new locks, each with three slots. The newly expanded locks are meant to double the canal’s capacity. The locks were initially scheduled to open in 2014, on the canal’s 100th anniversary.
Among those gathered for the later event was Jill Biden, wife of US vice-president Joe Biden, who was leading the US delegation. Up until 1999, the canal was under the US authority. Out of the 70 heads of state invited to attend the ceremony, only a dozen attended. The low turnout of world’s politicians has been attributed to the Panama Papers scandal, which erupted when 11.5m documents belonging to Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm, were leaked earlier this year.
Panama officials have said that the scandal unjustly damaged the country’s reputation, as only a portion of the companies mentioned in the documents were actually incorporated in Panama.