With a band playing and flags waving, a Chinese ship carrying more than 9,000 containers on Sunday entered the newly expanded locks that will double the Panama Canal's capacity in a multibillion-dollar bet on a bright economic future despite tough times for international shipping. Several tug boats pulled "Cosco Shipping Panama" into the new locks at Agua Clara under a cloudy sky in Colon province. "This is the route that unites the world," said Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, per the AP. "It's a one-time experience, a great achievement," says a bystander. "Panama is showing the world that even though it is a small country it can do great things." Nearly two years late, the $5.25 billion project formally launched with the 158-foot-wide, 984-foot-long, Chinese-owned container ship. It's 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 at the daylong festivities, officials are bullish. However, the party 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. While authorities anticipate increasing commerce between Asia and ports on the US East Coast, doubts remain that those ports are ready to handle the huge New Panamex-class cargo ships. Net cargo volume through the canal from the US East Coast toward Asia fell 10.2% in 2015. "Supply and demand on a world level is what will decide whether the Panama Canal will really bring more volume or not," says a rep for Maersk Line, which moves about 14.2% of world commerce. "What is certain is that the current canal has maxed out." (Read more Panama Canal stories.)