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New Panama Canal Locks Open, Caribbean Princess Will Be First Cruise Ship to Use Them

Jul 06, 2016 12:17 AM EDT

The Panama Canal celebrated the opening of its new locks on June the 26th, marking the culmination of the nearly decade-long, $5.4-billion "Panamax" expansion. The project's inauguration signaled the beginning of "a new era in global trade," proclaimed a headline in the LA Times.

A crowd of 30,000 showed up to witness the Chinese flagbearer "COSCO Shipping Panama" become the first commercial vessel to pass through the Agua Clara locks on the Atlantic side of the canal. The 158-foot-wide container ship could not possibly have entered the old locks, which only admitted craft with a maximum width of 106 feet.

When it first opened in 1914, the Panama Canal could handle traffic from ships bearing as many as 5,500 containers. The expansion allows passage by "post-Panamax" ships carrying more than twice that capacity, up to 13,000 containers. The inaugural vessel carried a load of 9,000 containers.

Similar mega-ships are expected to begin using the locks, including one post-Panamax vessel operated by Princess Cruises. USA Today reported that the cruise line's 118-foot-wide "Caribbean Princess" is scheduled to traverse the new locks on a voyage that launches in Oct 21, 2017.

"Caribbean Princess" is likely to be the first mega cruise ship to make use of the Panama Canal expansion. Disney Cruise Line has also scheduled voyages using the new locks for 2017, although its ship, the Disney Wonder, is not a post-Panamax vessel and can fit in the old locks.

The Celebrity Cruises, Holland America and Royal Caribbean cruise lines, which operate mega-ships, do not currently have plans to send them through the new locks, according to Travel Weekly. The expansion does not appear to be affecting the recreational travel industry nearly as much as it does commercial shipping.

Panamax greatly reduces voyage length for mega-ships in what could be a huge boon to the freight industry. The Christian Science Monitor reported that while the pre-expansion canal could accommodate only 6% of the world's liquefied natural gas tankers, the improvements enable access to 90% of the current global fleet.

But the LA Times story notes that the ongoing slowdown in the global freight traffic will cut into expected revenue for the canal, which means that it will take a while to recoup the multibillion-dollar investment in the project. In addition, many American ports are not quite ready to handle super-sized post-Panamax vessels.

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