With China's help, Panama is poised to grab a larger share of the world's growing cruise tourism segment with a brand new cruise port.
Panama City's Amador cruise port, located right at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is being built with an eye to serving as a port of call and potentially as a home port.
Upwards of 260 cruise ships a year cross the Panama Canal, and with a full-service terminal able to accommodate today's larger vessels, more of them would be enticed to dock in town and explore the sights.
The China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) has finished dredging the navigation canal and terminal area, and is now working on preparing some seven acres of surrounding land for development.
Panama's President Juan Carlos Varela toured the site on Wednesday, saying he was eager to see the cruise port operating by mid-2019.
"We are very pleased to see the progress, to see the capacity shown by the companies Jan de Nul and CHEC in being able to move this port project forward," said Varela, noting a little more than a third of the project has been completed.
Belgium's Jan de Nul, which specializes in the building and maintenance of ports, and CHEC, together form the consortium charged with developing the port.
"We are also looking for a home port strategy so that Panama can serve as a departure port for cruises to the Caribbean or to the Pacific, via the Panama Canal," said Varela.
To promote the project and the future of cruise tourism in Panama, Varela said his government plans to showcase Amador port at an upcoming international cruise ship fair.
China's ambassador in Panama Wei Qiang, who accompanied Varela during the site inspection, told Xinhua he was also pleased with the pace of the project and looked forward to greater cooperation between the two countries.
"I hope that more Chinese companies can operate here to contribute to the economic and social development of this beautiful country ... We are open to making the most of every opportunity," said Wei.
Jorge Barakat, the head of Panama's Maritime Authority (AMP), said it would be ideal to have the port up and running in time for peak cruise tourism season in October 2019.
In anticipation of the opening of the port, Panama is in talks with the Miami-based Florida-Caribbean Cruise Association, which gathers all leading cruise companies with Caribbean itineraries, and with global cruise line MSC, which has expressed interest in the new port, said Barakat.
Amador's terminal will initially accommodate two mega cruise ships, each capable of carrying 5,000 passengers, while the port itself, including restaurants and recreational centers, will be able to handle as many as 10,000 passengers. The long-term plan is to accommodate up to five mega cruise ships.
The port of Colon, on the country's Caribbean coast, operates as a home port, but Amador's ideal location is expected to significantly strengthen Panama's position as a cruise ship destination.