June 10, 2008 / 6:49 PM / 10 years ago

U.S. cruise ship pays record to cross Panama Canal

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - A U.S.-owned cruise ship has paid a record $331,200 to cross the Panama Canal as vessels fight for space in the increasingly congested waterway, authorities said on Tuesday.

The 964-foot (295-meter)-long Disney Magic, owned by a subsidiary of Walt Disney Co, broke the transit record on May 16, the Panama Canal Authority said. The ship sails out of Port Canaveral, Florida, and is registered in the Bahamas.

Three container ships have also recently paid more than $313,000, the previous record price set in October 2007 by NCL Corp Ltd vessel Norwegian Pearl. NCL is an affiliate of Star Cruises Ltd.

Non-reserved slots for crossing the canal are sold at auction to the highest bidder, with yachts, cruise liners and container vessels all competing for limited spaces on the 50-mile (80-km) waterway between the Atlantic and Pacific.

Companies shipping goods between Asia and the U.S. East Coast are willing to pay higher prices to cross the canal to save time and avoid docking goods at ports in Mexico and Central America and transporting them over land.

The canal also allows cruise ships to journey from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The Disney Magic vessel offers cruises from Florida to Los Angeles, and crossing the Panama Canal is one of the highlights for tourists.

Last year, the U.S.-built canal started a $5.25 billion expansion plan, but work won’t be completed until 2014.

Waiting times to enter the canal increased by a third in the first three months of this year, compared with the same period in 2007, due to a high traffic levels at the canal.

The number of passenger and cruise ships crossing the canal increased by 30 percent in the same period.

Panama is trying to establish itself as a cruise ship destination. But an increase in cruise ships using the canal worries shipping firms that container carriers may be forced to pay ever-higher prices, or face waits of up six days, to receive a canal slot.

The price of buying a slot does not include the normal tariff, which varies according to weight.

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