Amid exploding fireworks and waving flags, a Chinese ship carrying more than 9,000 containers entered the newly expanded locks that will double the Panama Canal’s capacity.
Several tugboats pulled the vessel, Cosco Shipping Panama, into the new locks at Agua Clara on Sunday under a cloudy sky in Cólon province, about about 50 miles north of Panama City.
“This is the route that unites the world,” said Panama’s president, Juan Carlos Varela.
As the ship headed for the Pacific Ocean, the canal administrator, Jorge Luis Quijano, said: “This new transit route is the tip of the iceberg in making Panama once again the logistic center of the Americas. And it represents a significant opportunity for the countries of the region to improve their infrastructure, increase their exports.”
Thousands of Panamanians who began gathering before dawn to witness the inauguration of the canal’s expansion waved the national flag as a band struck up.
“It’s a one-time experience, a great achievement,” said Felicia Penuela, a housewife. “Panama is showing the world that even though it is a small country it can do great things.”
Nearly two years late due to construction delays and labour strife, the $5.25bn (£3.9bn) project formally launched with the transit of the 158ft-wide, 984ft-long (48.2 metres by 300 metres) container ship, one of the modern class of mega-vessels that will now be able to use the canal.
With 30,000 people and eight foreign heads of state expected to attend the daylong festivities, officials were bullish about the future of the canal.
“There is evidence that the Panama Canal, with this expansion, is an important player not only for regional maritime commerce but worldwide,” said Oscar Bazan, the Panama Canal Authority’s executive vice-president for planning and commercial development. “The canal is a winning bet. [Clients] will benefit from saving not only time but also money, because the canal is a route that shortens distance.”
However, the expansion comes amid a lull in global shipping due to the drop in oil prices, an economic slowdown in China – the canal’s second-largest customer – and other factors that have hit the waterway’s traffic and income.