If only a few ports in a geographic area can accommodate the massive new vessels, then shipping companies may decide to cover the region with feeder boats, which ultimately increases the costs of goods.
Of 161 ports in South and Central America, only 21 have channels of 50 feet or more, and 13 of those are in Brazil, according to data provided by the American Association of Port Authorities. Colombia, Argentina and Chile also have deeper ports. In Mesoamerica, only Mexico and Panama are in that league. But several ports in the regions have plans to hit that depth.
If ports dont get ready, they will simply be left out, Silva said.
The work at Buenaventura reflects the regions challenges.
The port is reinforcing its pylons and moorings to keep the larger ships from, literally, dragging the dock into the sea. Its also receiving two new cranes to unload the taller container ships. The port is already deepening its access canal to 41 feet, but its hoping to receive environmental permissions to begin dredging to more than 50 feet to be able to receive post-Panamax vessels.
At the Moin Container Terminal in Costa Rica, APM Terminals is pushing a $992 million project to dredge the canal to 52 feet and have six super-post-Panamax gantry cranes. Puerto Caucedo, in the Dominican Republic, is also in the midst of an expansion project.
Anthony Hylton, Jamaicas minister of industry, investment and commerce, recently returned from a two-week trip to China and Singapore where he was promoting the governments plan for the Caribbean nation to become a global transshipment and logistics hub.
The $8 billion to $10 billion project includes dredging Kingston Harbor, expanding port facilities and building a dry dock. It also hinges on linking ports and airports through road and rail networks.
We have some assets in place. This is not starting from scratch, said Hylton, who has been trying to woo international investors and expects dredging to begin shortly. We will be ready for the post-Panamax.
But the question remains whether Jamaica, which is in the midst of a financial crisis, and other nations, will be able to deliver on their promises, said Anton Edmunds, a Caribbean business consultant.
People in the region talking about making investments is one thing, he said. But actually starting the process dredging and the process of construction is going to determine whether they are going to be competitive or not.
Cuba is another case in point. While the island is renovating its Mariel port, the U.S. embargo is likely to keep it from fulfilling its potential as a transshipment hub, executives said.
Under U.S. law, any ship that calls on a Cuban port is prohibited from entering a U.S. port for 180 days with limited exceptions covering foodstuffs and humanitarian goods.
I think Cuba is really one of the most interesting players of the future of course, assuming the embargo is lifted, said Rodolfo Sabonge, vice president for market analysis and research for the Panama Canal Authority.
The island could become a hub for transshipment of goods as well as near-sourcing of manufactured goods for the U.S. market.
Maybe it would be like going back to the 1950s, he added.
While Mariel wont be able to receive post-Panamax ships, deepwater areas near Santiago on the eastern end of the island might be a logical location for a Cuban deepwater port, he said.