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Interesting Websites
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Panama's Ports

Manzanillo International Terminal
Colon Container Terminal
Panama Ports Company
Colon Port Terminal
The Panama Canal Railway
Cruise Ship Terminals
Bunker Supply
Braswell Shipyard Panama
Panama Maritime Authority
Maritime Sector Outlook

Panama will soon become one of the key transshipment points in the world. Colon is already the largest port complex in Latin America, handling 1.3 million teus ( twenty foot equivalent unit) per year, according to UN’S ECLA.

With its Canal linking the two greatest oceans, Panama has always been very aware of its advantage in having a unique geographical position, but making the most of this attribute and establishing the country as an important point for cargo handling has taken longer than it should. This was due to a number of factors beyond Panama’s control. The first was the operation of the Panama Canal as a U.S. government agency.

With the opening of the Canal in 1914, the two major deep water ports of the country became Balboa, on the Pacific side of the Canal and Cristobal on the Atlantic side. The old Panama Canal Company, and later the Panama Canal Commission, looked upon these ports as simply adjuncts to the Canal itself, firstly for the convenience of Canal customers for servicing their ships, such as with coal and later bunker fuel and, secondly, as ports for the movement of cargo in and out of the Republic of Panama. The Canal Company did not look upon the ports as commercial operations which could be commercialized, modernized and expanded.

Meanwhile, the Colon Free Zone, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus, founded in the 1940’s, had grown into the biggest duty free zone in the western hemisphere despite the slow development of the ports.

After the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Canal Treaties and the handing over of the ports and the Panama Railroad in 1979, little changed. The succeeding military dictatorships and their civilian puppet governments clung to the ports and railroad and used them for giving jobs to their faithful for political ends. The railroad gradually ground to a halt for lack of funds and attention and the ports remained at virtually the same stage of development that had existed when they belonged to the Panama Canal Company.

It took the US military invasion of Panama in 1989, the destruction of the Panama Defense Force and the installation of the civilian government of Guillermo Endara Galimany to change the course of the ports.

Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT)

Under the Director General of the then Panama National Ports Authority(APN), Jerry Salazar, the Endara government gave a concession to Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT) to develop a private port operation adjacent to the Colon Free Zone.

The consortium comprised Motores Internacionales, S.A., a Colón Free Zone company specializing in the importation and sale of Russian-made vehicles, and Stevedoring Services of the Americas (SSA), of Seattle, Washington. In time, SSA bought out the share of Motores Internacionales.

MIT covers an area of 45 hectares. Another 51 hectares are available for future expansion. The port has ten container cranes in service. At present it has eight super post-Panamax container cranes and two Panamax container cranes. The port has 1,240 meters of continuous berths and a ro-ro facility.

As this port facility developed, its efficiency made it not only a strong competitor of other key ports such as Miami and Kingston, Jamaica, but also of the government-operated port of Cristobal. With a change of government in 1994, it was apparent to the incoming administration of Ernesto Perez Balladares that the government ports could not compete with MIT and plans were made to offer Balboa and Cristobal on concession to a private operator.

Colon Container Terminal (CCT)

Firstly, however, a concession contract was made by APN director, Dr.Hugo Torrijos, with the Evergreen group to construct another modern container terminal at Coco Solo, adjacent to the Manzanillo terminal. This port, known as Colon Container Terminal (CCT) provided Panama with another modern and highly-efficient operation. It has 612 meters of dock available with five Panamax container cranes and, in the first phase, covers an area of 25 hectares. This port has an additional area of 37 hectares in reserve for phases II, III and IV and will cover a total of 62 hectares. In the first quarter of 2002 it registered the highest growth rate of all container ports of 45.4 percent.

Panama Ports Company (PPC)

A bidding process on the ports of Balboa and Cristobal culminated with the international ports operator, Hutchison Whampoa, of Hong Kong, and Felixstowe, England, winning the process. Their Panama subsidiary, Panama Ports Company (PPC) totally reconstructed the Port of Balboa and has converted part of the Cristobal docks into a cruise ship terminal.

The old Pier 18, Balboa, part of the port complex built in the early 1900’s at the time of construction of the Panama Canal, has now disappeared, replaced by a straight dock parallel to the Panama Canal, in its first phase, 350 meters long. It has general cargo berths of 1,466 meters in total length.

At the time of publication three super post-Panamax container cranes had already been installed on the completed section of the new structure. Eventually 12 super post-Panamax cranes will be installed and the complex will cover an area of 50 hectares.

Colon Port Terminal (CPT)

Located between Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT) and Colon Container Terminal (CCT), this port, which serves smaller coastal vessels and those trading to Central America, Colombia and the Caribbean, was also privatized during the past government. Its operators also have plans to modernize the facilities and install at least one container crane.

The Panama Canal Railway

The railway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific port terminals holds an historic place as the first trans-continental railroad link on the American continent. Built in the first half of the 19th Century, it was a popular method for “forty-niners” to cross the Isthmus on their way from the east coast of the United States to the gold rush in California. Before it was completely finished, some actually paid for the convenience of being allowed to walk along the line and the clearings between Colon and Panama City.

The railroad was a traditional link between the ports on both sides of the Isthmus and in its early years it carried cargo between the two oceans for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company (PSNC) which traded on the west coast of the Americas from Chile, in the south, to California, in the north.

The railway became part of the French canal building project and was eventually bought by the U.S.government along with the French rights for building the Panama Canal. It continued operating with subsidies from the Canal and the U.S. military until it was turned over to Panama in 1979. Without the continued support of the previous operators and because of neglect and overstaffing by Panama’s military governments, its condition slowly declined.

However, the railway was seen as an important link between the various new terminals in the growing port system. As part of the privatization process under the Perez Balladares government it was offered under concession to private operators and bidding was won by Kansas City Southern Industries and Mi Jack Holdings of the U.S. The railway has now been reborn and has been re-named as the Panama Canal Railway Company, totally rebuilt, including new tracks and terminals. Double-deck container trains linking all of Panama’s principal transshipment ports with a modern, fast and highly-efficient system complete the multi-modal transshipment opportunities offered by modern Panama. The railway was originally intended to carry cargo only, but as cruise ship calls in Panama’s cruise terminals have grown, the railway has added modern coaches to its inventory of rolling stock with bubble-dome coaches for visitors to view the Panama Canal and travel through scenic jungle and lake areas along its route.

Cruise ship terminals

One of the first operational cruise ship terminals was Colon 2000, on the Atlantic coast of Panama. There are two other terminals —Gatun Yacht Club, which was refurbished to receive passengers off ships making a partial transit of the canal, and Pier 6, Cristobal, operated by Panama Ports Company. Another cruise ship terminal, the Fort Amador Resort and Marina, on the Pacific, is also receiving cruise ship calls. Calls by cruise ships on trans-canal and Caribbean itineraries has grown rapidly because of the efforts of both the Panama Government Tourist Bureau (IPAT) and private operators and is showing indications of becoming another of the country’s successful tourist developments.

Bunker Supply

The supply of bunker fuel to ships transiting the Panama Canal and calling at Panama ports is becoming a highly competitive activity again after many years in the doldrums. In the 1960s Panama was the major world supplier of maritime fuels after Rotterdam and Kuwait. A series of circumstances, including the world fuel crisis of the 70’s and a poor internal fuel policy, which ignored the passing trade, lost Panama its position as a key supplier for many years.

When duty free petroleum zones were established at the Canal and at the trans-isthmian oil pipeline in the west of the country, near the border with Costa Rica, a slow, but positive change in this trade began again.

It took a dramatic turn when a consortium comprising Mobil Oil and the Alireza family, of Saudi Arabia, won a concession to use the former U.S. Naval Base of Rodman, on the west bank Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, and a tank farm of 36 tanks at nearby Arraijan, connected to the docks. Since the amalgamation of Mobil with Exxon, this facility has been sold to the Libermann Group of Argentina and the Panamanian agricultural supply firm of Melo. They intend to continue upgrading the fuel facility and adding a bulk grain handling terminal.

Another major player, Almacenaje Petroliferos, S.A., has constructed a new maritime fuel supply center on the island of Taboguilla, at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal at a cost of U.S. $20-million. This company is a subsidiary of Catalana de Almacenaje Petroliferos, S.A., of Spain. The terminal is located less than two miles from the southern gateway of the Panama Canal on the Pacific Ocean. A number of smaller, but new and active suppliers have also been attracted to the market.

Braswell Shipyard Panama

Another very successful privatization project in the maritime sector is the Braswell Shipyard in Balboa under the administration of the Braswell family, who gained the concession to operate it. They also operate several other private drydocks in the United States.

The Braswell operation in Panama is a complex of three drydocks which reverted to Panama under the 1977 Panama Canal treaties. It was built at the same time as the Panama Canal, and its largest dock is the same dimension as the lock chambers on the Canal and can handle Panamax size vessels, the maximum size ship that can transit the Panama Canal. This dock is also the largest available on the Pacific coast of the American continent between Tierra del Fuego and Los Angeles, California.

The shipyard has sophisticated heavy industrial machinery and has carried out impressive repair and maintenance ranging from supply vessels and tugs, to cruise ships, container ships and tankers.

Panama Maritime Authority

With the rapid modernization and expansion of the ports, the government recognized that the country was growing in importance as a maritime nation. This led to the restructuring of the former Panama National Ports Authority (APN), incorporating the maritime-related departments scattered under various ministries were combined into one entity: the Panama Maritime Authority (AMP). This body is again under the directorship of Jerry Salazar, who has been actively involved in the shipping sector for more than 30 years. It incorporates the former Panama National Ports Authority (APN), the Consular and Shipping Department, the Panama Nautical School and the Maritime and Coastal Resources.

The government of Mireya Moscoso, within its first 100 days, recognized the importance of the maritime sector by naming the Minister of the Canal to the post of chairman of the AMP Board and adding the Minister of the Presidency to the Board. This was obviously intended to keep the President of the Republic fully informed on activities in the maritime sector.

Maritime Sector Outlook

Panama presents a formidable complex of multimodal cargo movement options to world trade.

The effect of MIT, CCT and PPC is already being felt in the Caribbean and on the east coasts of South and Central America and as far north as the US and Canadian east coasts. A direct challenge to the Panama Canal for many years has been the U.S. mini landbridge - the rail connection between both coasts of the US. However, as the demand for cargo movement over this link has grown during the past decades, delivery time has often slowed down considerably because of congestion.

This was starkly demonstrated during the shut-out of US longshoremen by port operators in the last part of 2002, which resulted in massive cargo backlogs. Ship re-routing and transshipment through Panama’s ports during and after this event will be reflected in the 2002 overall handling figures.

Despite a worldwide slump in cargo rates, a cyclical event, and the slowdown in the world economy during 2002, Panama’s modernized cargo handling complex is expected to serve both as a “pressure valve” for the US mini-landbridge system as well as creating its own growing network of worldwide links.

In the first quarter of 2002, the overall growth of container movement in Panama’s hub ports grew by 5.7 percent, and indications are that this trend will continue throughout the year and into 2003.


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