panama canal
panama canalReuters

A huge Chinese container ship on Sunday reportedly became the first vessel to sail through the newly-expanded Panama Canal amid fireworks and cheers from people who had gathered at the Cocoli locks to celebrate the inauguration of the quicker route from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.

The Chinese container ship, COSCO Shipping Panama, came on to the Pacific-side of the locks almost 11 hours after entering the canal from the side of the Atlantic Ocean. The ship plied in once the gate to the locks opened, after completing the 50-mile trek through the canal, according to USA Today.

The process to enlarge the 102-year-old canal took 10 years, and 40,000 workers to complete and cost around $5.4 billion. Ships carrying up to 14,000 containers can now avail of the shorter route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans due to the new locks in the canal.

The construction of the canal began in 2007 and was scheduled to finish in 2014, but expense-related strikes and disputes delayed the project, BBC reported.

The President of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, hosted a party to mark the day, USA Today reported. Guests included leaders from 70 countries, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's wife Jill Biden and members of the U.S. Congress.

"This is an achievement that all of us Panamanians should be proud of... Today marks a historic moment for Panama, for our hemisphere and the world", Varela was quoted by ABC News as saying.

Panama hopes that a bigger canal will lead to an increase in the revenue it gets from the canal, according to BBC.

However, US officials also raised concerns for increased chances of drug smuggling and contraband through the canal. "The fact that a ship can now carry up to three times as much cargo as it transits the canal means that the professional trafficking organisations — trans-national criminal organisations — have that much more space, that much more possibility, to move product through the canal... We've got to make sure as we celebrate ... that we remember we still have a challenge in terms of law enforcement and security," USA Today quoted William Brownfield, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, as saying.

According to the BBC report, the original Panama Canal was used in August 1914 for the first time. It was built by the U.S. and handed over to Panama in 1999.