Linking the Atlantic to Pacific Ocean, Panama Canal provides one of the most unforgettable cruising experiences. More than 10 years were needed to complete canal's 51 miles in 1914, and thus to avoid the lengthy and dangerous cruise around Cape Horn.
The ships are lifted by 'The Big Ditch' through a fascinating feat of mechanics that is aided by onshore 'mule' locomotives via 3 great locks, traversing artificial lakes, channels blasted through rock, and dense jungle. This unique narrow waterway has become a route between oceans for seabirds like cormorants and pelicans, as well as ships.
Panama Canal was a culmination of a dream that begins in 1513 with Spanish conquistador Balboa who was the first European to travel the 43 ml (70 km) wide isthmus. In 1880, the French Canal company started construction works, but due to financial and engineering problems had to sell its rights to the USA for USSD 40 million, with a loss of USD 240 million. The US began construction in 1904. The monumental project was completed in 10 years at a cost of nearly USD 387 million. Currently the USA still oversees the canal operations, though it signed a treaty during the late 1970s to transfer it back to Panama by the 21st century.
Panamax-sized ships are the bigger vessels that can fit through the canal's old locks, Such cruise vessels are limited to max LOA length 1050 ft (320 m) and max width / beam 110 ft (33,5 m). Among the many cruise ship classes designed to allow Panama Canal transition are Millennium-class (Celebrity), Coral-class (Princess) and Signature-class (Holland America). However, all new cruise ships exceed the canal's old locks limits.
Although many cruise lines already feature Panama Canal transition itineraries (Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Disney among others), they are restricted to using their smaller ships. The expansion allowed for larger passenger liners to traverse canal's 49-ml (79 km) stretch. However, height restrictions remain because of the 1962-built "Bridge of the Americas" (clearance below 61,3 m / 201 ft at high tide) limiting vessels' size. Princess Cruises currently offers canal crossing itineraries on the Island Princess (2214-passenger) and Coral Princess (1970-passenger). The expansion allowed the company to deploy on the canal the larger Caribbean Princess (3080-passenger).
With the new locks now opened and functioning, will world's largest cruise liners be able to fit through them? The short answer is - no. The new locks, which are in parallel with the old ones, measure 1400 x 180 ft (439x55 m) with draft 60 ft (18 m). However, the max allowed cruise ship dimensions are 1200 x 161 ft (366x49 m) and draft 50 ft (15 m). World's largest passenger ships (RCI's Oasis-class) are indeed within these new lock dimensions, but their height (236 ft / 72 m above waterline) doesn't clear the Bridge of the Americas (spanning over canal's Pacific entrance). So unless the bridge is either removed or replaced by a taller one, the Oasis-class ships can't pass through Panama Canal. Cunard's liner RMS Queen Mary 2 (specifically designed to clear the 228 ft / 70 m height of NYC's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge) also joins the list of large ships unable to transit the Canal. Luckily, NCL Norwegian's Breakaway-class ships (Breakaway and Getaway) and the succeeding Breakaway Plus-class (Bliss, Escape and Joy) clear a full Panama Canal transit.
Panama Canal cruising season runs October through May. The canal operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with 35-40 vessels passing through every day. Each transit takes about 8-10 hours.
During season 2016-2017, the number of cruise ship transits through Panama Canal was 223. For season 2016-2017, the this number was 241. For season 2017-2018, Panama Canal cruise ship schedule had listed a total of 248 passenger ships booked for passing through the Expanded Canal (new Panamax and Neopanamax Locks). The total number of cruise passengers was 312,304. Among the most notable vessels were Caribbean Princess, Carnival Freedom, Carnival Splendor, Norwegian Bliss. The list of cruise lines with ships passing through the new locks included Princess, NCL Norwegian, Carnival, Silversea, Viking, Lindblad.
On May 14, 2018, the Alaska-based Norwegian Bliss became the largest passenger ship ever passing through Panama Canal. The liner operated a 15-day transition cruise (itinerary May 10-25) from Miami to Los Angeles, visiting Cartagena, Puntarenas, Puerto Quetzal, Puerto Chiapas, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta. For season 2018-2019 were booked 234 cruise ship transits.
For season 2019-2020 were booked 29 cruise transits by large-sized (Neopanamax) passenger liners. Maiden transits were scheduled for Norwegian Dawn, Le Dumont D'urville (Ponant), Ventura (P&O), Carnival Glory, Seven Seas Splendor (RSSC-Regent), Scenic Eclipse, Flying Clipper, Hanseatic Inspiration and Hanseatic Nature (Hapag Lloyd), Greg Mortimer (Aurora Expedition). Annually, the Panama Canal transit 0,9+ million cruise tourists. The main local attractions are the visitor centers at Miraflores Lock and Cocoli Lock, which both have exhibition halls and outdoor observation decks and provide guided tours.
Panama Canal alternatives for ship crossings between Atlantic and Pacific oceans are the Strait of Magellan (between South America and Antarctca) and the Northwest Passage (in the Canadian Arctic territories).
On April 30, 2017, Disney Wonder became the world's first ever cruise vessel that passed through Panama Canal's new set of locks.
Disney Cruise Line's 2713-passenger ship Wonder was on a 14-night repositioning cruise from Florida to California (Port Canaveral to San Diego). From San Diego, the ship operated several Baja Mexico itineraries before its summer Alaskan season with departures from Vancouver BC Canada. The following table shows this unique itinerary as ports of call (dates, arrival/departure times) and ports sequence.
|23 Apr||Departing from Port Canaveral, Orlando, Florida|
|25 Apr 09:00 - 16:00||Cozumel, Mexico|
|28 Apr 06:00 - 14:00||Cartagena, Colombia|
|29 Apr||Panama Canal transit|
|04 May 08:00 - 15:00||Puerto Vallarta, Mexico Riviera|
|05 May 08:00 - 15:00||Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Mexico|
|07 May||Arriving in San Diego, California|
Cruise ship transiting Panama Canal via the old locks operate full transition cruises through all the 3 sets of old locks - named Pedro Miguel, Miraflores and Gatun (bordering the lake). Some Princess ships offer an extra day in Port Fuerte Amador (Panama City).
The first Princess cruise ship with partial transits throuth the new locks was Caribbean Princess - on 10-day roundtrips from Fort Lauderdale (Port Everglades, Florida). The ship's first ever transit was on October 26, 2017. The itinerary's ports of call were Princess Cays (Bahamas), Cartagena (Colombia), Panama Canal, Colon (Panama), Puerto Limon (Costa Rica) and George Town (Grand Cayman).
Panama Canal statistics
On August 22, 2017, the CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt (2015-built, IMO 9780873) became the largest container vessel transiting via the new canal locks. The cargo ship has TEU container capacity 14855, LOA length 366 m (1200 ft) and width 48 m (157 ft). The record was broken on May 15, 2019, by the 15313-TEU boxship Evergreen Triton (2016-built, IMO 9728916) with length 369 m and beam 51 m.
In FY17 (Fiscal Year 2017 / Oct 1, 2016 through Sept 30, 2017), Panama Canal broke all previous annual cargo tonnage records, reporting a traffic volume of 403,8 million tons. This was a 22,2% increase over 2016, and directly attributed to the Expanded Canal's added capacity of Neopanamax ships. According to FY17 figures, the waterway was transited by a total of 13,548 vessels (3,3% increase over FY16). The cargo volume projection for FY17 was 399 million tons. In 2017, the Canal served 29 major containership line services, including 15 Neopanamax shipping services on the trade routes between East Coast USA and Asia. The containership segment is the Canal's leading market (35,3% of all cargoes, or 143 million tons, of which 89,1 million tons were transited through the Expanded Canal). The 2nd segment are the tanker ships (including LPG and LNG carriers, with total 105 million tons. The 3rd and 4th segments are bulk carriers (79 million tons) and vehicle carriers (47 million tons).
In 2017, the main shipping routes through Panama Canal were AsiaEast Coast USA (34%), West Coast South America-East Coast USA (13%), West Coast South America-Europe (7%), West Coast Central America-East Coast USA (7%) and South America intercoastal (5%). In 2017, the Canal was used mainly by vessels leaving from USA (68,3% of the total tonnage), followed by China, Chile, Japan, Mexico and Colombia.
It was estimated, that the Canal's expansion will save around 160 million tons of CO2 emissions during its first 10-year operational period. In 2017, of all transiting vessels, 53% were boxships, 28% LPG tankers, 10% LNG carriers, and the remaining transits were made by bulk cargo and car carriers and cruise ships.
As future projects, the Canal has plans to concession a Ro-Ro terminal (for redistribution of vehicles, machinery and heavy equipment), as well as a huge logistics park (sized 1200 hectares / 12 km2) for the region's logistics services.
On April 28, 2018, the gas carrier LNG Sakura transited the canal with the first-ever LNG shipment from USA to Asia (Dominion Cove Point terminal to Japan). The vessel is owned by Kansai Electric Power (70%) and NYK Line (30%). It has LOA length 300 m and width 49 m. Currently, Panama Canal provides 7 LNG booking slots weekly (average 5,5 transits. For FY2018 was expected 50% increase in LNG shipping over FY2017 (163 to 244 transits).
On August 15, 2018, Panama Canal celebrated its 104 Anniversary (opened 1914). Currently, the artificial waterway connects 144 maritime routes and around 700 ports in 160 countries.
FY2018 was a record year with total tonnage (PCUMS) 442,1 million tons (9,5% increase over FY2017's 403,8 million tons). The increase was driven by LPG and LNG carriers (130,3 million tons), boxships (159 million tons), bulk carriers (73,2 million tons), vehicle carriers (49,5 million tons). Most of the traffic was between USA, China, Japan, Mexico, Chile.
On May 14, 2019, the Q-Flex class LNG tanker Al Safliya (owned by Qatargas) became the first-ever large gas carrier to transit the waterway. The vessel has length 315 m, width 50 m and max LNG capacity 210,000 m3. Canal's previous max vessel width/beam was 49 m, now increased (since June 2018) to 51,25 m (168 ft). In 2018, Panama Canal served 340x LNG tanker transits (181 in 2017).
Next video is a full-length documentary reviewing canal's history and construction.
FY2019 was another record year with total tonnage (PCUMS) 469 million tons (6,2% increase over FY2018). The increase was again driven by LPG and LNG carriers (increases 6,9% and 37,6%, respectively), product tankers (+5,6%), vehicle carriers (+5,5%, 53,1 million tons), boxships (164,87 million tons, of which 126,2 million through Neopanamax Locks), bulk carriers (76,5 million tons), chemical tankers (44,3 million tons), LNG carriers (43 million tons), LPG carriers (37,8 million tons), crude product tankers (22,6 million tons), passenger ships (9,9 million tons). Most of the transit shipping traffic was between USA and Asia, Europe and South America, plus US intercoastal routes. The waterway's ,main customers were from USA, China, Japan, Chile, Mexico.
Panama Canal cruise ship transition cost (fees)
Following the Panama Canal Authority Board's recommendations, on April 28, 2015 Panama officially approved the proposal to revise the canal's toll structure.
- By the new structure, each transiting vessel's passage is segmented in different units of measurement:
- LNG carriers (liquefied natural gas) and LGP (gas) tankers' tolls are based on m3 (max capacity).
- Dry bulk carriers tolls are based on DWT (deadweight tonnage).
- Tankers' tolls are on PC/UMS tons and metric cargo tons.
- Container (boxships) tolls are based on TEU capacity (max containers).
- Cruise vessels' tolls are based on passenger capacity. They are levied based on PC/UMS or pax berths.
- A new segment was created to toll local tour ships.
Cruise ships through Panamax Canal are charged USD 138 per berth. Cruise ships passing through the canal's new locks (post-Panamax) pay USD 148 per berth. When this decision was made, the new canal locks were 85% complete. The new toll system was implemented on April 1, 2016.
On May 7, 2008, the boxship MSC Fabienne paid a record highest Panamá Canal transit toll - USD 317,142. Currently, the canal's average transit cost is USD 54,000 per vessel.
Due to historic low water levels, in January 2020 the waterway's transition fees were increased by adding an additional "Freshwater Charge" - fixed at USD 10,000 for vessels with LOA length 125+ ft (38+ m). Also new is the handling service fee - USD 5,000 (vessels with beam 91+ ft / 27,7 m) and USD 1500 (vessels with LOA 125+ ft 38 m).
Panama Canal cruise terminal
A complete Panama canal transit is comprised of sailing through 3 sets of locks. Gatun Locks are located on the Caribbean side of Continental Divide while Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks are situated on the Pacific side. Vessels transiting the canal are being raised and lowered 85 ft in this 3-lock system. Other special highlights of Panama canal are the Gaillard cut and Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake is among the largest man-made lakes in the world covering 163 sq.miles. Gaillard Cut is 8 miles long channel built through solid rock that was the most difficult excavation in canal construction.
The new Panama Canal locks were officially inaugurated on June 26, 2016 following the completion of a 9-year (USD 5,25 billion) construction project. Originally scheduled for completion October 2014, a hundred years after it first opened, the canal's expansion provided an additional lane of shipping traffic through construction of 2 new locks (each with 3 slots), this way doubling the capacity of this unique waterway.
During new locks' opening, thousands of spectators gathered at Cocolí locks (outside Panama City) to watch the Chinese container ship "Cosco Shipping Panama" with its 9472 TEU containers becoming the ever first ship passing through the new locks.
During the canal's opening ceremony, there was a special guest section with around 3000 people, including delegations from different countries, business associates, heads of different authorities and organizations.
Following the new locks' opening, Egypt's Suez Canal (Panama’s main rival) lowered its transition tariffs to keep its shipping traffic.
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