PANAMA CANAL DAY

IT’S ALL HERE … Everything You Need to Know

It’s 4:30 a.m. – When I am on the bridge giving commentary as we make a passage through the Canal this is when and how the day begins. You’ll get inside information on what’s happening on the bridge of a ship passing through the Canal and pictures on the bridge showing perspectives that guests never get to see.

The Bridge of Life – Millions of years ago there was no Panama! The waters of the oceans flowed freely between the continents before the “bridge of life” liking the continents was created.

New Granada – Eventually the Spanish arrived and conquered, and then as the Spanish Empire dissolved, Panama struggled to find it’s place in the New Word.

The Dream – Columbus, King Charles V of Spain, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Simon Bolivar all shared the same dream.

At work: bridge commentary during Canal passage.

At work: bridge commentary during Canal passage.

A Century of Expansion – Voyages and expeditions of discovery opened up new areas of the world, and the fledgling United States of America began expanding to the west.

The Panama Railroad – Although many cruise passengers will take the excursion on today’s Panama Railroad, few realize how important the original Panama Railroad was not only to Panama but also to the United States. This was the “little railroad that could” and carried billions of dollars of gold across the Isthmus.

The French Effort – Riding high on the success of the Suez Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps came declaring that a canal across Panama would be easier than building the Suez Canal.

Banana Republic – The term “Banana Republic” was coined to describe the Republic of Panama created with the assistance of the United States, who in return got a path cross the Isthmus dividing the new country in two.

Let The Dirt Fly – Theodore Roosevelt, like Caesar, came, saw and conquered. The United States undertook the greatest project the modern world had ever seen and finished the Panama Canal ahead of schedule and under budget.

Dr Richard DetrichaHow It Works – In theory quite simple: up, over, and down, but achieving that was and is quite a marvel! Here’s what you need to know about how and why the Canal functions.

A Complicated Marriage – Panama’s relationship with the United States was complicated from the start. Many people read David Mc Cullough’s wonderful history, The Path Between The Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914, failing to realize that it covers only PART of the history. A lot has happened since 1914, in the world, in Panama, with the Canal, and with Panama’s relationship with the United States.

Moving Forward – Time moves on, and so has the Canal and Panama. What about the future role of the Canal? Nicaragua? The Northwest Passage? The Canal expansion project?

Panama 101 – What is in Panama and why are people so excited about visiting the country itself?

Booking Passage – The questions everyone ask … What is the best time? How to find the best price? Which side of the ship is best? What about shots, passports, etc.?

I do change my shirts!  This is just my traditional Panama Canal day shirt!  It's more fun if there is another ship in the locks next to you.

I do change my shirts! This is just my traditional Panama Canal day shirt! It’s more fun if there is another ship in the locks next to you.

Seeing Panama – If you are lucky enough to actually stop in Panama and not just barrel through the Canal, what are the shore excursion options? Which one is best? How do you choose? Should you book through the cruise line or go independently? What are the independent options? Included are actual photos from most of the tours.

Your Voyage – Mile by mile guide of your cruise through the Panama Canal. What to expect and what to look for? Facts that you should know along the way.

Questions & Answers – Probably half of these are the same questions that you’ve been asking?

Our Ship & Our Bill – Everybody’s question: how much? A hypothetical ship and how the toll and fees are charged.

Key Dates in Panama History

U. S. Military Installations in Panama 1904 to 1999

99 Years Old And Going Strong!

It should happen to me!  This month the Panama Canal celebrates 99 years of service to over a million vessels!  The giant new rolling gates have arrived and the expansion program is over 60% complete and scheduled to open sometime next year, or as we say in Panama, “Manana!”

If you are one of my many faithful subscribers, to watch this video you may need to actually visit the Internet site.

In a FINANCIAL TIMES article, “Panama Canal: Out of The Narrows”,  Andres Schipani and Robert Wright wrote . . .

After a visit to Panama almost four decades ago, the novelist Graham Greene saw the canal as becoming “less and less” important every year, with “a smaller tonnage passing, a smaller revenue, a channel too shallow and locks too narrow for the great tankers”.

That fear of irrelevance has only intensified as the world’s ships have grown too big to pass through the canal. Today, about half of the container ships afloat or on order worldwide are too large to travel through its locks. The “Panamax” vessels historically designed to transit the canal are now relative minnows.

If that were not enough of a challenge, melting Arctic ice could also open a rival route to the north.

Eager to defend its status as one of the world’s great trade conduits, Panamanians decided to expand the canal in a national referendum almost seven years ago. That $5.25bn project is running about six months behind schedule but, when the work is finished in mid-2015, the expanded waterway is expected to transform some of the most critical trade routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific. Logistics companies such as railways are trying to gauge whether the expansion will ultimately greatly increase direct shipments to the eastern US . . .

The deeper, wider channel will allow the passage of enormous vessels with up to three times the capacity of the biggest ships currently using the route. Panamanian officials predict that the canal, which celebrates its centenary next year, will increase the annual tonnage it carries to more than 600m tons in 2025 from 333.7m tons last year.

However, while Panama is making its bullish projections, regional infrastructure is not yet ready for the bigger vessels. Many US ports are unable to accommodate larger ships travelling via Panama. Several tropical ports are also vying with each other to become the deepwater hubs for the decades ahead but observers say port expansions are struggling to keep pace with the potential shift in shipping patterns.

In Panama, the expansion is 60 per cent complete. Dredging of the navigational channels along the narrowest section, the Culebra Cut, is finished. In a colossal ditch, 8,000 workers wearing yellow helmets and fluorescent vests are building compartments for the sets of locks.

Somewhat cruelly for Panama, ship sizes have once again outgrown the canal while this work has been going on. Maersk Line, operator of the world’s biggest container fleet, has 20 new ships on order that are so vast that they cannot pass through even the enlarged waterway.

Originally, it was envisioned that the expansion programme would chiefly make it easier to ship manufactured goods from Asia to the eastern US. But ships travelling the other way have become far more significant than anyone imagined seven years ago. “In the future, we foresee trade growing between Asia and Latin America,” says Jorge Luis Quijano, the Panama Canal administrator, “with east Asia sourcing more and more raw materials out of Latin America.”

Despite a downturn in the commodity supercycle, many businesses remain hungry for lower transport costs to ship commodities such as iron ore, coal, soya and natural gas to Asia. Additionally, the flow of containerised Asian goods to Latin America is still strong, thanks to a robust growth in wages and domestic credit, which has been fuelling a consumer boom in the region.

Nevertheless, Panama is not going to be able to tap these shifting trade flows unchallenged. Nicaragua’s national assembly – dominated by the leftist Sandinista front – has backed a $40bn proposal for a little-known Chinese company HKND to dig a rival to the Panama Canal. Many already doubt the economic feasibility of a project three times longer than Panama’s 80km waterway.

Not to be left behind, Guatemala and Honduras have announced “land bridge” projects between the Atlantic and Pacific. There is also speculation in Mexico about Chinese investment in a connection across the Tehuantepec isthmus.

Container shipping lines such as Maersk, which has about 15 per cent market share in Latin America, are open-minded about such projects. “For me, any infrastructure investment that is going to facilitate trade between customers is welcomed,” says Robbert van Trooijen, Maersk Line chief executive for Latin America and the Caribbean. “I see myself as a user of those projects.”

Since Panama took control of the Canal in 1999, about 5 per cent of world trade has been passing through its locks. It earned $1.6bn in pre-tax profits last year on revenues of $2.4bn, and accounts for up to 10 per cent of the country’s economic output.

Panamanians are confident that regional rivals will not eat too deeply into their profits. “We don’t consider there will be any competition,” Fernando Núñez Fábrega, Panama’s foreign minister, told the Financial Times last month when asked about the Nicaraguan rival. For him, if everyone who wanted to build a canal did so, “Central America would end up like a Swiss cheese”.

. . .

The expansion of the canal is set to shake up the way shipping lines operate for reasons well beyond the size of vessels that they can use. Because bigger ships take longer to load and unload in port, container lines may send the new, bigger ships to fewer ports in the US or South America once they emerge from the canal. That will spark greater demand at both ends of the canal for new “feeder” services ferrying containers between smaller ports and larger “hubs” where the bigger vessels dock . . .

However, Alberto Alemán, who stepped down as Panama’s canal administrator in December 2012 after 16 years at the helm, hopes that much of the new business will come to Panama’s own ports, on both coasts. Panama offers logistical advantages. It is not only a regional airport hub but also has a large free trade zone, like Singapore and Hong Kong. The country is also Latin America’s fastest growing economy, with annual growth rates of about 10 per cent . . . Read the entire article

Meanwhile ports in the US, where development of infrastructure has lagged behind almost everywhere, are scrambling to find funds to play catch up. The ports who aren’t planning to expand to accommodate the larger vessels are going to be left in their wake.

If you are planning a cruise through the Canal or are just interested in its fantastic history, you’ll want to get a copy of my book Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition.

Commercial Boquete

New Lock Gates Arrive for Panama Canal Expansion

A major milestone in the expansion of the Panama Canal took place when the first of the new rolling lock gates arrived from Italy. This is a good shot because of the workers in the photo giving you a sense of the size of these gigantic gates.

It took some two hours to unload each of the four lock gates that will become part of the biggest locks in the world when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed.

The gates, which arrived Tuesday, August 20, took 30 days to travel from Trieste in Italy. The ship that carryiied them is on its way back to Italy to continue ferrying the remaining 12 gates. Each one is 30 meters high and 10 meters wide.

To unload each one, at a specially constructed dock. took four flatbeds each with 120 wheels.
The 16 gates that will allow the passage of post panamax ships that currently have to make the long voyage around the Horn, will be in place by April 2014. [NEWSROOM PANAMA]

And here’s the video complete with the dramatic music the ACP likes for this kind of thing.

Views – Vistas

Sunrise Over The Pacific

The other day I received an email from a retired teacher who was planning a trip through the Panama Canal.  His kids had given him McCullough’s PATH BETWEEN THE SEAS and my Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition book to read in preparation for their trip.

McCullough’s book is the definitive history of the building of the US Canal and is a weighty tome somewhat intimidating because of its size.  I had one Captain who said, “Richard, every night I read McCullough’s book and it puts me to sleep.  What am I doing wrong?”
I asked him what page he was on and he had only gotten to page 80.  I said, “Hang in there for 150 pages and you will be hooked” and sure enough he was.  But I suspect because of the comparative sizes and the fact that my book is about cruising through the Canal, the retired teacher read my book first.  And he found a few mistakes and happily emailed me.  I really do appreciate when readers do this!  Really!  But one of the things he questioned was “sunrise over the Pacific.”

Well in Panama from certain vantage points it happens!  Although the Isthmus runs East-West and the Atlantic is on the East and the Pacific on the West, in Panama City you can see the sunrise over the Pacific and just to prove that . . . I took this picture early one morning from the top of Ancon Hill looking out to the Pacific.

Panama Sunrise Over The Pacific

 

The Stuff of Espionage Novels & Movies

Who knew . . . the Panama Canal!

At the center of the current international brewhaha is tiny Panama and the Panama Canal. As one might expect in this day and age the Panama Canal Authority is very interested and demanding in know what is being transported through the Canal across the country. Apparently those sneaky North Koreans were transporting undeclared arms from Cuba hidden underneath tons of raw sugar. The ship had for whatever reason, probably emails and phone calls, attracted the attention of the US, hence Panama, and guess what . . .

Inspectors digging through the sugar . . .

Unidentified Cuban weaponry hidden beneath 10,000 tons of raw sugar

During the inspection prior to entering the Canal the crew resisted, and at one point when the crew refused to host anchor and move to a new location and Panama authorities had to cut the ships anchor chain.  In the melee the ship’s captain attempted to commit suicide by slicing his throat and he is now in a Panama City hospital.

Panama has requested the UN, US and Great Britain to assist with investigation.  Cuba claims these are old weapons being sent to North Korea for refurbishment.  Panama has granted permission to North Korean diplomats to come to Panama to aid in the investigation.  Boy, given a little imagination and artistic license, does this story have entertainment potential!

See these two stories from Panama Newsroom . . .

Detained N. Korea ship’s captain tried to slit throat

SHIP SEIZURE: North Korean diplomats heading to Panama

Although the Canal is officially neutral it has allowed warships from the US, Russia and other countries to pass.  The problem here is UN sanctions on North Korea and the fact that the illegal cargo was obviously hidden, not declared, and was attempted to be smuggled through the Canal.

Meanwhile construction continues on the amplification of the Canal . . .

Here’s a VERY nicely done update from the ACP . . . I only wish my workers moved as fast as this guys appear to move!

And now is the time to book your Panama Canal Cruise

2014 is the 100th Anniversary of the Panama Canal and this is the time when many people are planning and booking their Panama Canal cruise for this fall and next Spring.  If that is you . . . be sure to get ahold of my book Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition.

The more you know about the history of the Canal and Panama, the more you will enjoy your trip! My book is designed to be readable and a helpful guide both preparing for a Canal cruise and for the actual day crossing the Canal.

 

 

About these ads . . . Facebook, like everyone else, is looking to monetize their application by presenting these ads.  I don’t have any say in what ads you see . . . but if you do click I make a penny or so for my grandkids’ college fund.  Actually several of these ads are really great ads and fun to watch.

 

 

“Spanish? Start learning Chinese?”

As I struggle with learning Spanish, some are suggesting I should be learning Chinese instead.  While in Seattle I visited a contact at Holland America’s corporate offices: he was learning Chinese.  Why? China is emerging as one of the hottest markets for cruise passengers going!  On my last contract on a cruise ship for three Med cruises in a row we had groups of over 250 from China.  And what is generating a lot of discussion is the approval of Nicaragua to grant a canal concession to a Chinese businessman.

There was this, for example, at Newsroom Panama:

The delivery of a 100 year concession award for an Inter-oceanic Canal to a company without the capital or experience to carry out a project of this magnitude could be the result of a brilliant long-term operation by the Chinese government.

Jorge Cobas, writing in CentralAmericanData says:

As a commercial project, the Inter-Oceanic Canal in Nicaragua is economically unfeasible, in particular because the uncertainty over the return on investment to be made is so large. But for a country destined to be a world leader, as is China, for whom finance of $40 billion is no small thing, possession of a dominion over a waterway in the backyard of its greatest commercial competitor makes this investment a bargain.

President Obama conducted a routine visit to Central America in his second presidential term, and the most important thing he left behind was stories about the menus at the formal dinners. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping left hundreds of millions of dollars in loans for projects, which are, of course, well tied to the convenience of Chinese companies.

Xi Jinping did not visit Nicaragua. However, it could become the most important country for China on the American continent, in this century and the next.

Nicaragua is, under its current institutional conditions, with a Sandinista government which rules with the factual and dubiously democratic style of leftist Latin American governments – often going above the heads of opposing minorities – the Central American country where it is possible to develop this brilliant geopolitical Chinese operation.

Clearly, franchising the Inter-oceanic Canal directly to the Chinese state would have been much resisted and even unfeasible in political terms, both inside and outside of Nicaragua. As we have seen, the government of President Ortega found no obstacle to giving ownership of this concession to a nearly non-existent company. However, given the style of Chinese developmental policy, it is highly unlikely that the company will not be dependent on a government that has a clear need to ensure mastery of global sea routes, not only in terms of trade but also of military strategy.

It is clear that the construction of the Inter-oceanic Canal – if realized – would revolutionize and boost the economy of Nicaragua, to the well deserved benefit of its inhabitants, but it could also convert the country – and region – into a focus for geopolitical tensions, with unpredictable consequences.

What is absolutely certain is that we should hurry up and learn Chinese …

And just the other day the LAS VEGAS SUN ran this Associate Press article.  And what I find particularly interesting about this article is the references to the boom in Panama attributed largely to the Panama Canal.  Now frankly I don’t think Panama’s success is just due to the Canal, although it certainly is a major factor.  Fortunately the US built the Canal and ran it as a service generally breaking even.  When the Canal was turned over to Panama many naysayers in the  US predicted either that Panama would be unable to run the Canal independently, or that it would run it into the ground.  Panama decided to run the Canal as a business and it has become a hugely profitable business.  Although run by an independent, mostly non-political, authority, each year the Canal contributes huge amounts directly to the government in addition to all the residual contributions of the country’s major industry.  Even with the downturn in the economy and fewer containers from China bound for Wal-Mart, the Canal has continued to make money.

Panama’s boom helps drive Nicaragua canal dreams

Curundu used to be a warren of ramshackle wooden houses and reeking open sewers, one of Panama City’s most notorious refuges for street gangs and drug dealers.Then, three years ago, the government tore down the shacks and built a bustling new neighborhood of concrete apartment buildings, freshly paved streets, basketball courts and fields with artificial turf.

“We live more decently here now. People see a prettier neighborhood, kids playing soccer,” said Ronny Murillo, a 45-year-old ex-convict who helped build one of the billions of dollars in projects made possible by an economic boom driven largely by the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal. Behind him, enormous cranes loomed over a skyline that has been transformed by dozens of new skyscrapers, many filled with luxury apartments, high-end stores and fashionable boutiques.

In a little more than five years, Panama has slashed its unemployment rate by two-thirds and nearly tripled the rate of government spending as the double-digit growth of the canal-fueled boom has made it the hemisphere’s hottest economy. Just to the north, Nicaragua has watched years of slower growth fail to move it out of its position as the hemisphere’s second-poorest nation, after Haiti.

The deep discrepancy between the fortunes of two Central American neighbors goes a long way toward explaining the Nicaraguan government’s fervent promotion of a Chinese company’s vague proposal to build the hemisphere’s second trans-ocean canal across Nicaragua. Despite deep reservations among opposition lawmakers, environmentalists and independent shipping experts, the country’s leftist-controlled National Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to grant Hong Kong-based HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Co. an exclusive, renewable 50-year concession to measure the feasibility of a new canal, then build it and take the lion’s share of the profits.

Underlying much of the enthusiasm in Nicaragua is the hope that the massive new canal could bring a bit of Panama-style prosperity.

“I don’t think we’re going to be just like Panama, because they’re already 100 years ahead of us. But yes, I think this is going to help Nicaragua put poverty behind it and generate jobs,” said Roberto Pasquier, an electric appliance salesman in a market in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

Panama’s prosperity has drawn tens of thousands of job-seekers, mostly from Nicaragua and nearby Colombia, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Almost 40,000 such workers have been granted legal status in Panama since 2010 under a government program meant to feed the roaring demand for labor to build projects that include Central America’s first subway, a $1.452 billion investment.

Panama has the highest level of human development in Central America according to the United Nations Development Program, which measures factors including life expectancy, health care access and education.

“You can make money here in Panama, buddy,” said Mauricio Hernandez, a 29-year-old Colombian who sells food in the streets of Panama City. “We’re all coming for dollars.”

Panamanian Abel Aparicio, a 49-year-old hotel chef, earns $1,000 a month, twice what he made when he started 20 years ago, and has bought two small apartments that he rents out to supplement his income.

“Nobody’s that worried about losing their job,” he said. “If you leave one job, other opportunities open up, and there are ways to make money besides hotels, which there are a lot of these days,” he said.

Panama’s economy started booming around the time that authorities began the Panama Canal expansion in 2007. By 2010, the annual growth rate rose to around 10 percent, where it’s stayed.

The canal expansion generated 30,000 direct jobs and the administration of populist right-leaning President Ricardo Martinelli estimates that the government will have put $16 billion into public works between 2009 and 2014. That amount was $4.4 billion between 2000 and 2004. A 13.5 percent unemployment rate in 2004 dropped to 4.6 percent in 2012, in a workforce of 1.6 million. The poverty rate dropped from 36 percent in 2002 to 26 percent today.

Wealthy investors, many from Colombia and Venezuela, have built real-estate and tourism projects, restaurants, clothing stores, car dealerships and computer businesses around Panama City.

Nicaragua, meanwhile, doesn’t have any obvious means, besides the possibility of the canal, of rapidly accelerating its growth.

The government says it has created 700,000 jobs since President Daniel Ortega took office in 2007 and poverty has dropped from 50 percent in 2006 to 42 percent last year. But 1 million people remain out of work in a country of 6 million. If the canal is built, the Nicaraguan government says, within five years GDP would go from $11 billion a year to $25 billion, generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

“Those who oppose the canal want this country to keep suffering from underdevelopment and poverty,” said Edwin Castro, congressional leader of Ortega’s Sandinista Front.

Nicaragua is betting on businessman Wang Jing, who first appeared in Nicaragua last year as the head of the Xinwei Telecom Enterprise Group, which signed a contract with the government to improve the country’s telecommunications system and promised to invest as much as $700 million dollars. So far, there’s virtually no sign of any spending yet.

“We can’t believe that they’re going to build an inter-ocean canal, when from here it looks like they haven’t even built a single telephone line, or done anything else since they made the announcement. It’s all a lie,” said opposition congressman Eliseo Nunez.

The head of Nicaragua’s state telecommunications institute told reporters last week that the first new telecommunications antennas would be installed by Xinwei in late July or early August, and the delay had been caused by Xinwei’s high manufacturing standards. Still, such problems have fueled widespread doubts inside Nicaragua, where many are skeptical about dreams of Panama-style riches.

“It’s all a grand illusion that they’re selling us, it’s untrue that we’re going to turn into another Panama,” taxi driver Francisco Siles said as he picked up fares outside a Managua hospital. “We’re going to keep being the same poor Nicaragua.”

Weissenstein reported from Mexico City. Luis Manuel Galeano contributed from Managua, Nicaragua, and Kathia Martinez contributed from Panama City.

A couple of additional comments about the points I’ve highlighted.  If you are thinking about retiring abroad, about an expat life style, about escaping your home land for one reason or another, wouldn’t you choose a country with an established democratic government [albeit at times just as raucous, screwed up and maybe corrupt as the government in your homeland]?  Wouldn’t you choose a country not at war with anything except poverty?  Wouldn’t you choose a country that didn’t need a military? [The second US-Panama Canal Treaty promised that the US would protect the neutrality of the Canal in perpetuity - than you very much! - so who needs an army when the US spends so generously on its industrial/military complex?]  Wouldn’t you choose a country that is building its infrastructure and is in the midst of an economic boom?

And a second point usually just a by-the-way in this discussion, but one which has enormous world-wide implications: no one has done any environmental impact study.  It is said that had de Lesspes been successful in his original plan to create a sea level canal across Panama that the result would have been an ecological disaster.  A sea level canal across Nicaragua using Lake Nicaragua might well create environmental chaos.

For more about the fascinating history of Panama and the Panama Canal read my book Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition. 

I’m very pleased that one private university in Panama which specializes in teaching students American-style English is using Cruising The Panama Canal: Centennial Edition as a text in their history classes.  They like my presentation of Panamanian history, a wow to me as a guest in their country, and it forces the students to read and discuss in English, and not in a formal, rigid, boring style.

Canal Expansion Unearthing Fantastic Paleontological Findings

Although the Canal is all about business and getting the job completed, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) recognizes that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for scientific exploration and discovery.  Working closely with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, which has had a presence in the Canal almost from its inception, scientists are making amazing discoveries about the bridge between the continents.  This video, although in Spanish – not English or Chinese! – is fairly easy to follow even if you don’t know a lot of Spanish.

San Francisco, Panama & The Canal

Much as I love San Francisco, I’ve decided I am not a city boy any more.  Yesterday was a beautiful day in San Francisco, a little fog, certainly not beach weather, but warm enough since San Francisco in the summer can be the coldest place in California.  I spent most of the day, actually all of the day, negotiating traffic to and from the city, and mostly unsuccessfully looking for a place to park.  If by some miracle you do find a place to park you can only park for 2 hours so forget the idea of parking and going off to explore.  And parking lots, even at $25 a day, are rarer than genuine gold nuggets.  And the drivers are almost as rude as in New York, laying on their horns if you don’t jack rabbit start when the light turns green: not what I remembered about San Francisco.  Maybe their are all just transplanted New Yorkers.  It was all I could do not to give one woman in a brand new, black SUV the size of a motor home a Bronx-style hand salute.

008The Panama San Francisco Connection

Of course San Francisco owes it’s prominence to Panama since man of the gold seekers during California’s famed Gold Rush came to California by way of Panama.  There were three routes to the Gold Rush, the long trek across the Continental US, the passage around the southern tip of South America, or the shortest and quickest route across the Isthmus of Panama.

And the Golden Gate Bridge, the symbol of San Francisco, was made from steel fabricated by the Bethlehem Steel Company and shipped to San Francisco via the Panama Canal.

The Panama–Pacific International Exposition in 1915 was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal the previous year and to showcase San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake.  The beautiful landmark Fine Arts Pravillion and the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium at Civic Center Plaza are remaining structures from the 1915 Exposition. [San Diego held a similar exposition and celebration of the Canal and a number of those structures remain in Balboa Park.]

SWOT Panama Canal

Like any business, the Panama Canal today has strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.  The massive expansion of the Canal now underway and originally scheduled for completion next year is in direct response to the Canal’s opportunity as well as the threat that post-panamax ships would use other routes.

When the US decided to build a canal there was major disagreement as to where the canal should be built.  Panama and Nicaragua were the two competitors and each side had its proponents generally, in true US-style, depending on the proponents financial interests.  Panama won out by a slim margin but there has always been the possibility and talk of someone coming along and building a competing canal across Nicaragua.  The possibility of a Nicaragua Canal loomed again a few years ago when Nicaragua officially proposed the project.  Panama Canal planners were convinced that even if there were a Nicaraguan canal, a useable Northwest Passage, or some other “land canal” that expansion of the current Panama Canal was viable and that in today’s interconnected world there was enough business for all potential players.

Interestingly as the world financial crisis has started to impact China production of goods, Panama Canal traffic has started to decline.  Now comes word that Nicaragua has awarded a Chinese company a 100-year concession to build an alternative to the Panama Canal.

The Guardian reports that president of the country’s national assembly, Rene Nuñez, announced the $40bn (£26bn) project, which will reinforce Beijing’s growing influence on global trade and weaken US dominance over the key shipping route between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

The name of the company and other details have yet to be released, but the opposition congressman Luis Callejas said the government planned to grant a 100-year lease to the Chinese operator.

The national assembly will debate two bills on the project, including an outline for an environmental impact assessment.

Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, said recently that the new channel would be built in the north of the country, through the waters of Lake Nicaragua.

The new route will be a higher-capacity alternative to the 99-year-old Panama Canal, which is currently being widened at the cost of $5.2bn.

Last year, the Nicaraguan government noted that the new canal should be able to allow passage for mega-container ships with a dead weight of up to 250,000 tonnes. This is more than double the size of the vessels that will be able to pass through the Panama Canal after its expansion, it said.

According to a bill submitted to congress last year, Nicaragua’s canal will be 22 metres deep, 20 metres wide and 286 km (178 miles) long – bigger than Panama and Suez in all dimensions.

Under the initial plans for the project, the government was expected to be the majority shareholder, with construction taking 10 years and the first ship passing through the canal within six years. It is unclear if this is still the case.

Two former Colombian officials recently accused China of influencing the international court of justice to secure the territorial waters that Nicaragua needs for the project.

In an op-ed piece for the magazine Semana, Noemí Sanín, a former Colombian foreign secretary, and Miguel Ceballos, a former vice-minister of justice, said a Chinese judge had settled in Nicaragua’s favour on a 13-year-old dispute over 75,000 square kilometres of sea.

They said this took place soon after Nicaraguan officials signed a memorandum of understanding last September with Wang Jing, the chairman of Xinwei Telecom and president of the newly established Hong Kong firm HK Nicaragua Canal Development Investment Company, to build and operate the canal.

Nicaragua has accused Colombia and Costa Rica, which also has a claim on territory likely to be used by the new canal, of trying to prevent the project going ahead. [Newsroom Panama]

Rough Seas for The Cruise Industry?

When the COSTA CONCORDIA ran aground I expected our stock in Carnival, RCL, and the Carnivalized Princess successor PLC to all tank. They didn’t. They took a hit, but rebounded given the public’s fascination with cruising as an ideal and cost-effective vacation and way to explore. But a recent study indicates that the CARNIVAL TRIUMPH fire may have had a bigger long range impact on the people’s opinion of cruising. According to a Harris Interactive poll taken between May 14 and 16th (before the GRANDEUR OF THE SEAS fire) and reported by the industry magazine SEATRADE,

“US consumer attitudes about cruising have not bounced back following the Carnival Triumph incident but have continued to decline, with lower scores on trust, quality and intent to purchase . . . While Carnival Cruises Lines’ quality score showed the steepest declines (down 28% versus pre and 12% versus post), all the other brands tested ranged individually from 8%-11% below pre levels.”

Interestingly Harris noted that “Holland America Line’s purchase intent score has largely weathered this perceptual storm, holding at just 2% below its pre level”

I find this interesting because if a major airliner crashes [or maybe even COSTA CONCORDIA goes aground] people lament the tragedy but intuitively understand that people and machines are imperfect, and so continue to fly [or cruise] knowing that accidents happen. Of course one hopes the accident never happens to them, but we understand the odds so continue to fly. Or buckle up and get back on the freeway. But let an aircraft be stuck on the ground for a few hours with passengers unable to leave the aircraft, get up or (God forbid!) be unable to use their cell phones and holy hell erupts! So the fires, although efficiently extinguished with all emergency operations working according to plan, but with passengers inconvenienced because no nearby island happened to have an 3,000 empty hotel rooms and charter aircraft standing by, people get all upset.

I predict that public fascination with cruise travel will continue in two directions. First there are folks who like the mega-resort cruise ships where ports are an incidental inconvenience and the main focus, like a land-based resort, is spending money. Although many of these folks would be happy with a “cruise to nowhere” (as long as the bars and casino remained open) a few hours in a shopping mall port (like St Maarten, St Thomas, or Nassau) or a visit to a cruise line controlled Disneyesque stereotypical “port” are all that’s wanted. Second, there are folks to whom ports are still important and see a cruise as a special opportunity to explore new lands, experience new cultures, and expand their knowledge. Most of these folks prefer ships that actually float, and rock and roll sometimes and aren’t just resorts floating just outside the 12 mile limits.

So I see the “dip” as a kind of “market correction” and think cruise lines need to focus more on clearly defining their philosophies, products, and target audiences.

Those of you who are interested in the final report regarding the COSTA CLASSICA which is the basis of the official charges now against the captain can read the full report.

And for those of you interested in the future direction of cruising, or who like me, are Carnival stockholders and fans of Carnivals family of brands . . . here’s the best news ever!

Bob Dickinson is back! Nobody knows more about cruising that Bob Dickinson, formerly CEO of Carnival. Dickinson, who like me is 70, is being pulled out of retirement to act as a consultant to Carnival Corp CEO Howard Frank. Dickinson, known for telling it like it is, is charged with making recommendations. This should be fun! When Dickinson was captain of the Carnival he warned about the cruise business becoming commoditized where the competition is based on price and brands are not clearly differentiated. [The act of making a process, good or service easy to obtain by making it as uniform, plentiful and affordable as possible.] Well that’s exactly what cruising has become. Each of the Carnival companies is competing with everyone else, including sister companies, basically going after anyone and everyone with disposable dollars. Many cruise lines have embraced the idea that a CEO is a CEO and it doesn’t make any difference if he or she knows anything about the particular product as long as they can hit the numbers. Clearly Micky Arison and Howard Frank realize that the problem is larger than just a horrible accident and a string of unfortunate situations.

“Because I’m not tied to any one brand, I have sort of a 30,000-foot look at it; I can be very, very objective,” said Dickinson, 70. “It may be difficult for a brand to say ‘Gee, I made a mistake’ or ‘Gosh, I should have seen that and I didn’t,’ or ‘Gosh, maybe this strategy was the wrong one.’”

While he acknowledged that “there will be egos involved, obviously,” Dickinson said his job will be simply to present solid facts and leave the action up to managers. “It’s not meant to be an adversarial effort, it’s meant to be a collaborative effort,” he said.

Retired Carnival Cruise Lines CEO back as consultant

Panama City 3rd Least Expensive Capitol City

CNN Travel discovers Panama City. Big city life without Sharia law.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(CNN) — When the Economist Intelligence Unit released its most recent Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, the spotlight, as ever, fell on the world’s most expensive cities.

Tokyo came in on top of the pile of places that drain the color from your wallet, while Osaka and Sydney were second and third.

But what about the other end of the spectrum — how about a holiday where you can live it up without hemorrhaging cash?

The world’s cheapest city is Tehran, Iran, followed by Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Both have rich heritages, but Iran and Saudi Arabia are better known for generating controversial headlines than attracting tourists.

014In third place, however, Panama City popped up. The Central American country is best known for hats and a canal — now we’ve got a reason to make sure our passport is up to date!

Over the past decade, Panama has enjoyed the fastest growing economy in Latin America.

As a result, new hotels and restaurants have sprouted across the capital. Healthy competition is keeping standards high, and Panama City has a plethora of top-quality, luxury experiences for cut prices.
Panama City is the most affordable capital city in the Americas.

Panama City is the most affordable capital city in the Americas.

Logistics

Before stepping foot outside the airport, you’ve started saving. All tourists arriving at Tocumen International Airport are given travel insurance for 30 days. It is granted by the Panamanian Tourism Authority; the government has provided the service since it signed an $8 million deal with Assicurazioni Generali.

Next up: cash. The Panamanian balboa is linked with the dollar and the two currencies are interchangeable, so there’s no paying a commission for changing currency.

As for airport transfers, a standard taxi to the city center costs $25. You could arrive in style with a Panama Luxury Limousine for $88.50. The same service would cost $145 in Rio de Janeiro, or $427 in Tokyo.

More cents can be saved (and you can do your bit for the environment) by avoiding bottled water. Tap water in Panama City is safe to drink, not a given in the region.

Hotels

Waldorf Astoria Panama – Latin America’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel opened in March 2013.  Book early and rooms start from $159.  Located on Calle Uruguay, aka “restaurant row,” the 248 rooms have metallic, glass and crystal decor designed by Miami-based Ba-Haus/KNF. A stay here certainly doesn’t feel like skimping. The outdoor swimming pool is covered in gold tiles, there’s a swanky spa and each guest is given a personal concierge. Overseen by head chef Kalych Padro Alvarado, four restaurants include a sushi bar and a French brasserie.Waldorf Astoria Panama, 47th and Uruguay Streets; rooms from $159; +507 294 8000

Casa del Horno – Founded in 1501, Panama was a Spanish colony for three centuries. Known as Casco Viejo, the historic part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.015Casa  del Horno (Oven House) sits on a colorful cobbled street in Casco Viejo. Surrounded by churches and plazas, it’s one of many colonial buildings to be renovated in recent years, making Casco Viejo feel like Cartagena in neighboring Colombia. Built in the 1850s, the eight-room hotel was originally a bakery. Stone walls remain, alongside art deco wooden furniture and all the modern fixtures, including LCD TVs and iPod docks. The hotel’s cafe and restaurant are reached via the pavement, avoiding the clinical feel that can befall hotel restaurants. Casa del Horno, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 212 0052; rooms from $250 for two-person suite. Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel\’s rooftop bar. Big city, big lights, at Tantalo Hotel’s rooftop bar.

Tantalo Hotel – The year-old Tantalo Hotel has 12 rooms, each designed by a different Panamanian artist. Designs range from gentle and flowery to seductive, with red-and-black walls and silver ceiling studs. Downstairs, a “living wall” is made from 900 lush plants. The restaurant dishes up Panama-style tapas, such as octopus with lemongrass and ginger. Cocktails, wine and several dishes to share will cost around $30 a head. Each month, paintings in the communal areas change. “The idea is for the fourth floor to be like an art gallery that you can wander around with a drink,” says assistant manager Catalina Bermudez. The big, buzzing rooftop bar has panoramic views and hosts events including a monthly Cuban music evening. Tantalo, Avenue B and Eighth Street; +507 262 4030; rooms from $120

Canal House – Canal House is a creaky 19th-century mansion in Casco Viejo, and checking in feels like staying with a stately aunt. With just three suites set around a large wooden staircase, this high-end guesthouse is owned by two sisters and loved for its quirky charm and homemade cooking. It was called “the finest accommodation that exists in Panama,” by Panama 980 magazine. Canal House, Calle 5a Este; +507 228-1907; rooms from $195, suites from $320

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Dining and nightlife

Restaurante Angel (Via Argentina No. 6868, El Cangrejo; +507 263 6411) is the city’s special occasion Spanish restaurant. You’ll get impeccably prepared seafood, beef, lamb and rabbit in an elegant setting with crisp service for around $20-25 per person, not including drinks.

There’s big food and big atmosphere for reasonable prices at Las Bovedas (Plaza Francia; +507 228 8058), a French restaurant set in the arched vaults of a 300-year-old fort in Casco Viejo. Fresh seafood, steaks, snails (it’s a signature dish) and great service are the hallmarks at this dressy classic.

Panamanian food is a mix of European, Asian and African tastes. The best way to experience the fusion is at Maito (Calle 50, Coco del Mar; +507 391 4657). It’s not often you order plantain hash with fried ceviche and come out smiling. Then there’s the ropa vieja main of shredded beef with a goat cheese sauce. Panamanian chef Mario Castrellón trained in Barcelona and returned to his hometown with a mission to start a “new gastronomy” inspired by the canal — the idea being that the waterway literally brings these different influences to the city.

For the indecisive gourmand, Manolo Caracol (Avenida Central and Calle 3, +507 228 4640) serves a set nine-course tasting menu for $36 per person. Busy and smart, yet relaxed, the open kitchen churns out seafood, meat and vegetable dishes made with local ingredients, the majority of which come straight from chef Caracol’s farm. Highlights include seafood bisque, corn tortilla with chorizo, and coconut fish curry with yuca tortillas.

Not exactly luxury but tasty and cheap all the same, Mercado del Marisco seafood market (Avenida Balboa and Calle Eloy Alfaro) is a great place to wander. When Anthony Bourdain came to Panama, this was his first stop. Here you’ll find rows of al fresco stalls selling ceviche for $1.25 a cup. There’s also an upstairs restaurant with a larger menu with hearty fish stews and filleted sea bass.

New Casco Viejo coffeehouse Bajareque sells the world’s most expensive coffee, Geisha, for a reasonable $6.50 a cup. Panama is the world’s only producer of this rare coffee, which typically retails for $172.50 per kilo. Fitting for its name, Geisha coffee mainly sells in Japan and costs $50 a cup at Tokyo coffee shops like Horiguchi Coffee.

The primary nightlife spots are Calle Uruguay and Casco Viejo, both of which are lined with places to sample Panama’s four national beers, Panama, Balboa, Suarana and Atlas, for a couple of dollars.

In Casco Viejo, Habana Panama (Calle Eloy Alfaro y Calle 12 Este; +507 212 0152), isn’t just the hottest dance spot in the city, it’s an atmospheric salsa hall that recalls the elegance of old Cuba and Ricky Ricardo style. Live bands typically don’t hit the stage until midnight. For a typical $10 cover you’ll find fewer better shows (or more fun) anywhere.

Then there’s Barlovento (Calle 10 A; +507 6613 4345), a tropical-style rooftop bar where the beautifuls hang. With views over Casco Viejo (rather than the Panama City skyline over at Tántalo) and a DJ playing a mix of electronic music and Latin beats, the place is pumping on the weekends. Again there’s a $10 cover charge (if you’re male that is; women enter free) but you’d easily pay a $25 cover for the same deal in Mexico City.
The Panama Canal is one of the world\’s top man-made attractions.
The Panama Canal is one of the world’s top man-made attractions.

Attractions

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPanama Viejo – The oldest section of the city, Panama Viejo was burned to the ground in the late 17th century by British pirate (or privateer, depending who you ask) Sir Henry Morgan. The crumbling remains of towers, forts and houses run along the coast waiting to be explored. The visitors center has a model showing the city before Morgan showed up. Panama Viejo; +507 226 8915; $3 for museum, $4 for ruins, $6 for both; open Tuesday-Sunday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Volendam Mar 08 095Panama Canal – The Panama Canal took 250,000 people more than 10 years to build (not counting the original failed French-led effort), transports 40 boats each day (taking eight to 10 hours per transit) and costs an average of $85,000 per vessel. Luckily, tours are a little less, and a partial transit with Canal & Bay Tours costs $135 per person, including breakfast, lunch and transfer though two sets of locks. The Panama Canal celebrates its centenary in 2014, and to mark the occasion it’s undergoing a $5.25 billion modernization and expansion.

Progress is best viewed from above. Air Charter Panama arranges one-hour helicopter tours covering the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the canal from $749 for three passengers in a Robinson R44.