Friday, 29 July 2011

A widened Panama Canal will accommodate bigger cruise ships


A widened Panama Canal will accommodate bigger cruise ships

By Donna Tunney
There will be fewer post-Panamax cruise ships after the Panama Canal Authority completes its ambitious expansion of the canal in 2014.

The Panama Canal Authority recently passed the halfway point in its ambitious plan to expand the 100-year-old canal and double the amount of cargo that transits the waterway.

Opened in 1914, the 48-mile-long channel enables ships to avoid the 8,000-mile navigation of Cape Horn, the sometimes perilous passage around the tip of South America.

The cruise industry will benefit because the wider canal will allow for easy repositioning of additional, larger ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Moreover, the canal itself is an attraction for a niche market of passengers eager to see the engineering feat up close.

The canal today has two lanes of traffic, each with a set of locks accommodating ships up to 950 feet long and 106 feet wide, dimensions that have come to be known as “Panamax.” When cruise ships began to exceed those dimensions, the industry started to speak of “post-Panamax” vessels.

Once completed, a third, wider lane of traffic and a set of longer locks at either end of the canal will accommodate ships about 1,200 feet long and 160.7 feet wide.

Some of the industry’s largest ships, such as Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-, Freedom- and Voyager-class vessels and Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Magic and Carnival Dream, will still be too wide or tall to transit the canal (ship height is limited by the Bridge of the Americas, which passes over the canal).

PanamaCanalMapBut many others will, including Cunard’s flagship, the Queen Mary 2.

Nine Princess Cruises ships will be able to transit the canal following the expansion, the line said: the Grand Princess, Golden Princess, Star Princess, Crown Princess, Ruby Princess, Emerald Princess, Caribbean Princess, Sapphire Princess and Diamond Princess.

Retailer Richard Bravo, product manager of cruise vacations for Automobile Club of Southern California, said the club sells a lot of group space into repositioning cruises through the canal.

Itineraries transiting the canal are very popular among West Coast clients, more so than a typical Caribbean cruise, he said.

But Christine Duffy, president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, predicted that Panama Canal cruises are not likely to expand beyond a niche market even after the expansion.

“Although it is a fantastic cruise to transit the canal, the transit from Fort Lauderdale to the U.S. West Coast via the canal is a long cruise, up to 16 days,” she said.

“The partial transit cruises into the canal and [back out] are popular but also are a niche product,” said Duffy, who added that the canal expansion primarily will benefit the cargo industry, particularly container traffic from Asia to the U.S. East Coast.

Jack Anderson, senior vice president, sales and marketing at Crystal Cruises, said there’s a downside to not offering Panama Canal cruises.

“If a brand does not have Panama Canal cruises it means there’s a subset of clients who want that itinerary and are forced onto another brand. In my experience, there is demand in all markets for the Panama Canal,” said Anderson.

Anderson said the partial cruises are a good option.

“Cruise lines can still offer a Panama Canal locks experience from Miami,” he said.

Anderson added that canal cruises help to broaden overall interest in cruising.

“The luxury market draws from the premium market. The premium draws from the mass market,” he said.

Crystal offers a series of Panama Canal cruises each year, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Miami and New York, and between Costa Rica and Miami.

Some cruise lines with ships that could transit the canal today choose not to do so. MSC Cruises is one of them.

“We have only two ships that are too big to transit the canal today: the MSC Fantasia and the MSC Splendida. But we have no ships going to California,” said Richard Sasso, president and CEO of MSC Cruises USA.

“Two analyses have to be done: commercial and operational," he said. "We have nine ships that can fit, but we choose not to offer Panama Canal cruises. We have no desire for it."

CORRECTION: A story in Travel Weekly's July 25 print edition incorrectly said that the canal expansion would accommodate all current cruise ships, rendering the term "post-Panamax" obsolete. Even after the expansion, several cruise ships will be too large to transit the canal.