Source: Courtesy of the Panama Canal Authority (Autoridad del Canal de Panama). For fiscal years (October to September). A Panama Canal ton is the equivalent of 100 cubic feet of cargo space.
Tonnage and Number of Transits, Panama Canal, 1915-2013
From the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 to the early 1980s, the number of transits increased in proportion with the tonnage. This process was impacted by economic and events such as the Great Depression (1930-1936) and World War II (1941-1945). During that phase, the activities of the Panama Canal were closely related to the dynamics of the American economy since most of it was related to trade between the East and the West coast or trade between the United States and Latin American countries. Then, from the 1980s, a new dynamic was set in place in which the the number of transits declined and then stabilized around the 13,000-14,000 range. Traffic particularly surged after 2002 with growing exports from China and the usage of the all-water-route to the East Coast by shipping lines. Labor issues along at American West Coast ports, such as the 2002 strike, were also an incentive to consider alternatives relying more on the use of the canal. The usage of bigger ships transiting the canal such as containerships specifically designed to optimize cargo loads considering the dimensions of the Panama Canal locks (ships dubbed Panamax Max) became the norm. Yet, the Panama Canal has size limitations and the growth of the tonnage in the 2000s incited the decision to expand with a new set of locks able to handle much larger ships. A similar traffic trend is also observed for the Suez Canal. It is thus expected that the number of transits will not increase significantly, but that the tonnage (and thus toll revenue) will continue to increase.