Source: Autoridad Maritima de Panama.
Container Traffic Handled at the Main Panamanian Ports, 1995-2015
Prior to the mid 1990s, Panama was handling limited container volumes, most of them related to domestic demand, such as for the Colon Free Zone. These volumes did not exceed 200,000 TEUs per year and were mainly handled by the ports of Colon and Cristobal on the Caribbean coast. The subsequent growth of container traffic handled by Panamanian ports can be divided in three phases. The first phase, between 1995 and 2002, corresponded to the initial privatization of Panamanian ports through concessions to private terminal operators. This led to the construction of new container terminal facilities, such as Manzanillo International Terminal (Carrix/SSA) in 1995 and Colon Container Terminal (Evergreen) in 1997. Panama Ports Company (HPH) took control of the Cristobal and Balboa facilities in 1996, which were then modernized and expanded. The reopening of the Panama Canal Railway in 2001 further supported the repositioning of transshipment containers between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
The second phase took place between 2002 and 2011 and marked the setting of Panama as a major transshipment hub. The Port of Balboa gained the most during this phase, which is indicative of the emerging transshipment function that Panama is playing for the transpacific and the west coast of Latin America. This led to a rebalancing of the distribution of the cargo activity between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. While the Pacific coast accounted for only 5% of the container cargo activity in 2000, this share surged to close to 50% in 2015. Yet, the majority (more than 90%) of all this activity is related to transshipment and little from domestic demand. This is prone to uncertainties since transshipment traffic may shift to other port facilities if shipping lines change their service configurations.
The third phase is illustrative of a maturity of the role of Panama as a transshipment hub. Since 2011, Panamanian ports have experienced little if any growth. In 2012, Panama International Terminal (PSA) started operations on the Pacific side, but the terminal has limited capacity (450,000 TEU) and its traffic has yet to go beyond 250,000 TEU per year. On the Caribbean side, growth leans more on a zero sum game where a terminal benefits at the expense of another. Although it is expected that the expansion of the Panama Canal may generate additional transshipment volumes, it remains to be seen what these impacts may actually be. Still, in anticipation, additional terminal facilities are planned by the Panama Canal Authority. On the Pacific side, the Corozal Container Terminal project has issued a request for proposals to global terminal operators. Phase 1 is expected to add 3.2 million TEU in capacity by 2018-19, while phase 2 would add an additional 2.1 million TEU at an unspecified date. Further, the Panama International Terminal will be expanding its capacity to 2 million TEU by 2017. On the Caribbean side, in 2016 an agreement was reached with a Chinese consortium to build the Panama Colon Container Port, a post-panamax facility with an expected capacity of 2.5 million TEU. All this put together would make Panama one of the most important container terminal cluster of the Americas.