Ports of Call
Panama is a major player in the global shipping industry—in 2015 5.6% of the world’s maritime trade passed through the country’s canal alone. Moreover, Panama’s location, mid-way between the Americas and bridging the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, has given the country an extraordinary opportunity to develop a network of sea ports and logistics centers dedicated to handling cargo from all over the world. Panama’s state ports are managed by the government and the Panama Maritime Authority (PMA). These ports are increasingly being joined by new, privately run ports, often managed by foreign enterprises investing in, and benefiting from, the country’s free trade zones. In 2016 there are 28 seaports around the country, many of which have undergone substantial upgrades and expansion ahead of the opening of the wider Panama Canal. Of these, five ports dominate the world of Panamanian shipping: the Manzanillo International Terminal, Colón Free Trade Zone and Container Terminal, Cristóbal Port, the Port of Balboa, and PSA’s Panama International Terminal.
The sector is expecting to see surging growth from 2017 on the back of the re-opening of the Panama Canal mid-2016. Container volumes at Panama’s ports totaled just over 4 million 20-foot-equivalent units (TEUs) during 1H2015, up 4.4% from the same period in 2014. The maritime industry will be expecting to better this performance considerably over the coming years and is looking to a swathe of investments and upgrades to pay off as activity in the canal picks up once more.
Manzanillo International Terminal (MIT)
This strategically located port sits on the Panama Canal just inland from its Atlantic opening in the province of Colón. Manzanillo is the third largest container port in Latin America and is part of the Colón FTZ. The terminal’s total area is 520,000sqm, with a container storage capacity of 37,000 TEUs, and a container repair yard with 15,000sqm, including 1,300sqm of undercover repair facility and connections for 1,145 refrigerated containers. MIT has been voted among the world’s top-10 most efficient ports by industry insiders, and its terminal named “Best Container Port in the Caribbean“ for two years running. In February 2015, MIT cautioned that a downturn in several Latin American economies in 1H2016 would likely impact its performance. Container volume in 2H2015 was already down 1.8% on 2H2014.
Colón Free Trade Zone (CFTZ)
CFTZ is a specialized zone for re-exporting merchandise, especially to the Caribbean and Latin America. For a specialist port, it is vast, and the largest free port in the Americas, covering more than 2.4sqkm. It is the second largest port in the world. Yet it increasingly exports to Asia, North America, and Europe in large quantities. Asia, in particular, accounts for a growing proportion of the CFTZ’s imports, making up 67% of all imports to the zone in 2014. Established in 1948 on the back of a government ambition to attract regional trade to Panama and capitalize on the country’s strategic siting, the port expanded rapidly, coming to symbolize Panama’s outward-looking model of government and its liberal and international approach to trade and business. Today the CFTZ is home to 1,949 companies and receives more than 250,000 visitors on business each year.
The port at Cristóbal is one of the oldest in Panama and has been commercially active for more than 150 years. Since 1997, the port has been managed by the Panama Ports Company (PPC). The port of Cristóbal is located in Limon Bay at the southwestern part of Colón City and at the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal. Its strategic location connects this seaport with the most important maritime routes of the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean. It is one of the most valuable ports alongside the Colón Free Zone. With a handling capacity of over 2 million TEUs, Cristóbal port has road access to the CFTZ and a railway on-dock that allows easier container movement, with a total of three container berths, 16ha dedicated to container storage, 11 quay cranes, and 36 RTGs. The expansion plans include the acquisition of 10 extra Panamax and post-Panamax cranes, and an extension over 3,700m of quay.
Port of Balboa
On the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal sits the Port of Balboa. Balboa has an ideal location to grow as a hub for cargo, connecting major liner services from the Far East and North America to the west coast of South America and the Caribbean. The seaport has been expanding its capacity since its privatization, handling 2.76 million of TEUs in 2014. Balboa has a total operating area of 30 ha for container storage and houses five container berths. Since 2015, and in readiness for the expansion of the Panama Canal, the port has operated 25 Panamax and post-Panamax quay cranes, and 51 RTGs. Containerized cargo represents 92.8% of the total container movement while the rest is for the local market. A freight railway links directly to ports in Colón FTZ. Balboa also receives and dispatches dry and liquid bulks as well as specialized cargo, and managed 2,184 reefer connections in 2015. Balboa is aiming to handle 4 million TEUs by the end of 2016, an increase in activity from 2015 of 3.4%.
Panama International Terminal
PSA’s Panama International Terminal is the youngest port in Panama, opened in 2010. Owned by the Port of Singapore Authority (PSA), the company announced in 2015 a major expansion of the port and an investment injection of $450 million over 2016-17. The construction works will see the port’s terminal capacity increase from 450,000 TEUs per year to over 2 million TEUs per annum. The new port will be equipped with 11 quay cranes, each having a reach of 24 rows and a berth of 1.1km. The modernized and upgraded infrastructure will give the port capacity to handle vessels containing 18,000 TEUs. PSA International’s hope is that this will encourage more shipping companies to use Panama and the Panama International Terminal as a hub for their international business in the region. The PSA’s works are scheduled to coincide with the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in June 2016.