Celebrating 100 years on the Panama Canal

By Tom Stieghorst
Panama CanalThis year marks the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal, and several cruise lines are offering enrichment classes and other programs to highlight the centennial.

Nearly every cruise line has one trip scheduled through the 48-mile canal, which is a bucket-list item for many cruisers, especially Americans.

Princess Cruises, Holland America Line and Celebrity Cruises are among the lines that make the most trips.

But several travel agents say that while the U.S.-built canal remains a requested itinerary, awareness of the centennial is low and doesn't drive demand.

"Maybe it hasn't hit," said Becky Piper, a CruiseOne franchisee in Cleveland. "I don't think the general public is as aware of that as people would think."

The saga of how the canal was built is a staple of the U.S. social studies curriculum. An engineering marvel, construction of the canal was started by the French, taken over by American interests in 1904 and finished in August 1914. The U.S. ran the canal until 1999, when the Panama Canal Authority took over operations.

According to the authority, about 200 cruise ship transits are expected in 2014, similar to the total in recent years.

Holland America Line has 14 full transits and 15 partial transits on its 2014 schedule. A partial transit is when a ship passes through the canal locks into Gatun Lake, typically from the Atlantic Ocean, and then reverses course and exits the way it came.

The partial transit enables passengers to see the canal on an itinerary that operates roundtrip from one homeport, usually in South Florida or Southern California.

The Coral Princess in the Panama Canal.HAL is planning special events to mark the centennial on all of its Panama Canal cruises this year.

Port and onboard history presentations will focus on the centennial, and a daily guide to events will include 31 "Fun Facts" about the canal parceled out throughout the voyage.

Each voyage will offer a poolside Panamanian Market on the day the ship moves through the locks, with themed market stalls, local beverages, food and music.

The events are coordinated through HAL's On Location program, begun last year to deepen the understanding of local customs and unique nuances in select areas on a ship's itinerary.

Princess Cruises, which has several ships that make canal transits, will note the centennial in its onboard lectures and stage celebrations in atriums of ships as they move through the canal.

Several ships are making their first trip through the canal in 2014, including the Carnival Legend, which will go through the locks in August on its redeployment cruise to Australia.

Agents said they recommend the full, rather than partial transit, to guests who can afford the two weeks and the open-jawed air arrangement, which adds to the expense.

Also, by mid-2015 a project to widen the canal and add a third set of locks is scheduled to be completed, which will give bigger ships the ability to transit.

"I'm telling my clients to stay tuned on that one," said Adrienne Greben, a Cruise Planners franchisee in Concord, Ohio, who writes a monthly newsletter. "With the widening will come more options in 2015," she said.

Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly. 
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