By Tom Peters

As appeared on page C5

The Suez Canal Authority is going after Panama Canal business, a move that could ultimately drive more cargo through the Port of Halifax.

Suez authorities said Wednesday they plan to offer discounts to shippers to use the Suez Canal as an alternative to the Panama Canal for moving Asian cargo to North American markets.

Sayed Zakaria, Suez spokesman, told the Bloomberg news agency that Suez officials plan to make the discount offer at a Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference in California in March. The size of the discounts was not revealed.

Suez will go East and West to maximize its share of world trade before the Panama Canal improves capacity,” Zakaria told Bloomberg. “Yes, we are 10 years ahead of Panama, but we are not sleeping.”

Panama plans to expand its canal but the project, which has been projected to cost $5 billion, and many predict much more, hasn’t started and it could be 10 years to 15 years before it is complete.

The Suez announcement plays into the Halifax Port Authority’s strategy to build its business through the Suez, a strategy it has been touting to shipping lines, shippers, freight forwarders and others in Asia and the India subcontinent for nearly two years.

“Certainly container cargo and world trade are growing at a rapid pace and just as the Port of Halifax has identified India and Asia as long-term growth opportunities, we see in this announcement that the Suez Canal Authority is also recognizing that if they can divert business to their canal, they also have exceptional long-term growth opportunities,” port spokeswoman Michele Peveril said Wednesday.

“We are seeing signs now that India and Asia are on many radar screens as being hot emerging markets. So I think to us it is a strong signal that the Suez Canal Authority, like Halifax, is identifying huge potential to divert shippers away from the Panama to reach some of the lucrative consumer markets in North America.”

With container ships getting bigger, the Panama Canal is getting booked to capacity. And as West Coast ports struggle to handle existing cargo volumes, Halifax has been heavily marketing itself as an eastern cargo gateway to North America.

The Suez Canal generated transit fees of $3.8 billion in 2006, said the Bloomberg report.