[PANAMA CITY] A Chinese-owned freighter will be the first vessel to pass through Panama's newly expanded canal, to be inaugurated with great pomp in June after nine years of work, officials said Friday.
The Andronikos, a Marshall Islands-flagged container ship belonging to the China Cosco Shipping Corporation (COSCOCS), a Chinese state-owned group, was selected by lottery among the Panama Canal Authority's 15 largest clients.
China is the second-biggest user of the canal, which provides easy passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by cutting across the narrow Central American isthmus.
The 80-kilometer (50-mile) canal has been widened at an estimated cost of more than US$7 billion to triple its capacity by allowing bigger bulk carriers to cross through.
The aim is to greatly boost the annual revenue Panama collects in shipping passage fees, currently worth a billion dollars.
Some five per cent of world maritime traffic travels through the canal, with an average 35-40 ships passing through every day.
President Juan Carlos Varela is set to host an inauguration ceremony on June 26 to which 70 foreign heads of state and government have been invited.
COSCOCS is the world's fourth-largest operator of container ships.
The brand-new Andronikos can carry up to 9,400 containers and is 300 meters long and 48 meters wide (980 feet by 160 feet). It will enter the canal from the Atlantic Ocean side and cross to the Pacific.
A smaller Japanese freighter, the Linden Pride, is set to travel the canal next the following day.
The United States - which built the original canal a century ago and kept strategic control until 1977 - is the biggest user of the canal by tonnage.
The expansion work went well beyond its initial 2014 deadline and US$5.25 billion budget.
The overruns caused friction between the Spanish-led consortium that took on the contract and the Panamanian government.