US imports from Central America in 2017 jumped 12 percent year over year to a record 1 million TEU, outpacing inbound container growth from any other region even as total US imports rose 6 percent in the same period to a new high of 22.9 million TEU.

Carriers that have added services to take advantage of this demand include Crowley, King Ocean, and Seaboard Marine. Thegrowth has kept freight rates elevated, with the port-to-port rate for one TEU ranging from $1,700 to $2,000 from New York-New Jersey depending on the destination in Central America. A 15 percent year-over-year spike in imports of the top commodity of fruits, nuts, and citrus to 552,862 TEU and a 69 percent jump in heating equipment and machinery to 49,191 TEU drove the growth, according to analysis of data from PIERS, sister product of

The rate of growth in 2017 was the fastest since 2011, which has caught the eye of a number of international freight forwarders looking to capitalize on it.

“In our discussions with global freight forwarders we’ve found they are focused on the Central American region and see it as an important global trade growth area which offers ongoing opportunity and investment,” said Kika Veiga, Latin America trade development director at Carotrans. Carotrans has expanded its presence in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama via international partnerships to make the most of this growth.

Costa Rica was the engine for Central America’s export growth to the United States, with traffic up 30 percent year over year to 245,556 TEU as volume of fruits, nuts, and citrus rose 38 percent to 186,783 TEU, according to PIERS data. Mexico was another star in the region, with volume up 19.6 percent to 181,466 TEU as heating equipment and machinery surged 77 percent to 41,214 TEU. Growth from Nicaragua, where traffic rose 4.5 percent to 42,942 TEU, was led by a 12.8 percent increase in non-knit apparel to 14,688 TEU, and a 21.9 percent jump in coffee and tea to 4,642 TEU.

A good deal of that growth in fruit from throughout the Central American region is coming from greater use of containerization for shipments that have previously moved in reefer vessels, according to PhilaPort director of marketing Sean E. Mahoney.

This trend is evidenced by increasing use of container ships by carriers that have traditionally relied on reefer ships, such as the fleets of Dole and Seatrade.

Growth from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Panama was broad, with many different commodity groupings recording growth.Honduras and Belize were the only countries in the region to record declines from 2016, with Honduras down 2.3 percent to 195,349 TEU, as imports from Belize fell 25.3 percent to 1,337 TEU.

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Dustin Braden, Data Analyst, | Feb 14, 2018 11:21AM EST