With its capacity boosted by nearly three times, Panama's enlarged canal -- set to be inaugurated on Sunday -- is expected to stimulate trade between the United States and Asia , and steal business from the rival Suez canal .
"A good deal of the commerce between Asia and the east coast of the United States can pass through directly on Neopanamax ships , which will help both sides," Nicolas Ardito Barletta, a former Panamanian president and former vice president of the World Bank in Latin America, told AFP.
Neopanamax ships , as their names suggest, are new generation cargo vessels built specifically to pass through the broadened Panama Canal . They can carry up to three times the number of containers the previous generation of smaller Panamax ships do.
Panama has spent the past nine years -- and more than $5.5 billion -- expanding its century-old canal to take on bigger freighters.
New locks and a wider shipping lane will allow vessels as wide as 49 meters (160 feet) and as long as 366 meters (1,200 feet) to pass through.
The aim is to greatly increase the amount of cargo transiting the 80-kilometer (50-mile) long waterway linking the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
"We are at the dawn of a great time for Panama and the world, thanks to the impact the canal's expansion will have," Panama's Vice President Isabel De Saint Malo boasted to AFP.
- Chinese ship to be first through -
Five percent of commercial maritime traffic already passes through the canal, particularly between ports in America, China, Japan and South Korea. To a lesser degree, it also serves South America and Europe.
On Sunday, a Chinese Neopanamax freighter, named the COSCO Shipping Panama for the occasion, will be the first to officially go through the broadened canal.
Asian exporters, shipping groups and US logistical and trade companies should be the first to benefit from the modified canal, says Carlos Guevara-Mann, a Panamanian political science professor at Florida State University.
American consumers will also see advantages, ending up paying "less for imported items from China and neighboring countries", he predicted.
In general, the costs of doing trade worldwide should decrease, as should polluting emissions, because a fewer number of bigger ships would be hauling goods, specialists say.