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Panama remains top container port in region

By John Collins (1)

UN survey found that, despite a 10.5% drop in traffic, it moved 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units last year

Despite a 10.5% drop in traffic, Panama’s Colon district remained the top container port in Latin America and the Caribbean last year, moving 1.2 million twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), the Santiago, Chile-based Economic Commission for Latin America & the Caribbean (ECLAC) announced.

The Colon district comprises the Manzanillo International Terminal, one of the Panama operations of Hutchison Whampoa and the terminal of the Taiwan shipping giant Evergreen. All are located in Colon at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.

The ECLAC study indicates that the high level of container traffic at Colon is largely due to the location of the Colon Free Zone which is  described as the second largest in the world after Hong Kong. It re-exports almost all of its merchandise to various Latin American countries rather than for consumption in the Panamanian market.

Panama’s move  to first place followed it displacement of Exolgan, the port of Buenos Aires, Argentina,  which was the region’s largest container port. But reflecting the continued Argentine economic crisis, its traffic contracted last year by 10.4$ to 1.01 million TEUs, according to the ECLAC study called the Maritime Profile.

While overall trade in Latin America last year fell 2.3%, most of the region’s top ports saw an increase in container cargo during the same period. According to the ECLAC study, 14 of the region’s 20 top ports experienced container traffic increases.

Puerto Cortes in Honduras saw the biggest increase with its container traffic growing 83.4% last year to 338,932 TEUs. Industry sources indicate it reflects the robust production increases in the nation’s textile and apparel sector. Cartagena, Colombia registered the second biggest growth with a 40.4% increase to 531,262 TEUs.

In third place was Manzanillo, Mexico with a 28.4% increase to 547,946 TEUs.

For the purposes of the ECLAC survey, Puerto Rico’s ports are not included in it since they are considered domestic U.S. But according to the Puerto Rico Ports Authority the port of San Juan, the main port in Puerto Rico handling containers, handled 1.8 million containers during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2001. That figure is considered inflated by a number of industry sources who point out that the estimates prepared for the proposed Port of the Americas place the total annual container traffic at San Juan at between 1.1 million and 1.2 million annually.

Duty-free oil in Panama next year

A further indication that Panama’s strong performance in shipping could increase, is the recent announcement of the Panama government that it signed an agreement with Chevron-Texaco allowing that company to become a duty-free zone for importing and marketing fuels effective Jan. 1, 2003. The government was forced, under new World Trade Organization free trade guidelines, to end the company’s monopoly. While this is expected to result in some initial displacement, observers indicate that under the new plan performance in shipping should strengthen in the longer term.

Containerized cargo includes all products that are not moved in bulk, which is the case with oil and wheat, for example. TEU statistics therefore don’t rank ports in oil country Mexico among the top. Veracruz, Mexico, for example, ranked eighth on ECLAC’s list of ton TEU ports last year.

The study found that outgoing container cargo increased at Buenos Aires, incoming cargo dropped, causing an overall decline. The fall in imports was due to the economic crisis with the International Monetary Fund reporting a 3.7% contraction in its gross domestic product last year. This also contributed to a 4.9% drop in overall trade.

At the same time the port of Santos, Brazil boosted its container traffic by 6.1% to 1.05 million TEUs, making it’s the second busiest TEU port in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to ECLAC. Brazil’s economy grew 1.5% last year while its trade increased by 3.1%.

In terms of total cargo tonnage, Santos is by far the largest port in the region. Last year it moved 48.2 million metric tons, an increase of 11.8% over 2000. By comparison, Buenos Aires moved 19.9 million tons in 2000 (the last year for which figures were available) and Colon in Panama 10.2 million tons.

In addition to Buenos Aires, ports that saw their container traffic decline last year included Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; Freeport, Bahamas and San Antonio, Chile, according to the ECLAS study.     





1) Other articles by the well known Caribbean author John Collins can be read at:

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June 3, 2002


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