“Today [Thursday] we celebrate a great day because the canal is now 99 years old,” said canal administrator Jorge Quijano during a ceremony that kicked off the countdown to the centennial celebration.
Inaugurated on Aug. 15, 1914, by the steamer Ancon, more than one million vessels have passed through the 80-mile canal that became the local economy’s greatest asset after the United States handed over its administration to Panamanian authorities on Dec. 31, 1999.
The route provides more than $1.1 billion annually to Panama’s national treasury thanks to the transit of nearly five percent of world trade.
“We must work hard to keep it competitive and to ensure that we have a canal for many generations to come,” Quijano said at the presentation of the official centennial logo during a ceremony held at the Miraflores Locks in the canal’s Atlantic stretch.
At an estimated cost of $5.2 billion dollars, the canal is being expanded to allow the passage of vessels with capacity of up to 12,000 containers – three times its current capacity – and works are now 60 percent complete.
But potential competition has emerged in recent months – first from Nicaragua and now from the thaw that began creating passages through the Arctic.
Nicaragua is moving forward with plans for the construction of its own canal, which according to officials could start in late 2014, after the country granted a Chinese company the concession for the project.
“For some reason people think that the Panama Canal is a monopoly and that is far from being true. We’ve faced competition for many years from the Suez Canal and the U.S. terrestrial channel,” said Panama’s Minister of Canal Affairs Roberto Roy.
“Nicaragua’s project is exactly what we already have here in Panama,” Quijano said, “while the thaw in the Artic is creating passage options through Canada and Russia.”
These Artic routes, experts believe, would allow China, the second biggest user of the Panama Canal, to avoid thousands of miles on its way to Europe.
But Roy considers that a route through Russia does not represent competition, while a [passage] option through the Canadian stretch of the Arctic is not “commercially usable for quite some time yet,” mainly due to high insurance costs.