Crowds cheered the delayed opening of the $5.4bn expansion of the Panama canal yesterday as the first ship to use it, a giant Chinese container vessel, "Cosco Shipping Panama", entered the Agua Clara lock on the Atlantic at around 7.50am.
The expansion triples the size of ships Panama can accommodate, meaning the 102-year-old canal can handle 98% of the world’s shipping and steal market share from its Egyptian rival, the Suez Canal.
By 2021, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) is hoping the project will bring in $2.1bn per year in added revenue, representing 2.8% of Panama’s gross domestic product.
Chinese container vessel "Cosco Shipping Panama" became the first ship to navigate the expanded canal yesterday (Salini Impregilo)
"As a Panamanian, I am proud," Odalis Castillo, an 18-year-old student who attended the launch, told Reuters. "There will be more money to spend on social projects."
However, the ACP is facing a $3.587-billion legal battle over costs with Spain’s Sacyr and Italy’s Salini Impreglio, two companies in the consortium that won the project in 2009 and finished it two years late, amid construction setbacks and strikes, Reuters reported.
The project was originally meant to have finished in August 2014.
So far 170 ships have signed up to use the canal in the next three months.
Yesterday Salini put the legal conflict aside to celebrate the opening.
"Seven years ago we began a long journey that represented the dream as well as the challenge that every entrepreneur and every person would want to have at least once in their lifetime: building a project that will change global trade," said Pietro Salini, CEO of Salini Impregilo.
The company said the project involved 50 million cubic metres of excavated earth, 290,000 tonnes of steel, 4.8 million cubic metres of concrete and more than 100 million working hours.
Image: Chinese container vessel "Cosco Shipping Panama" became the first ship to navigate the expanded canal yesterday (Salini Impregilo)