The low price of oil means ship operators to bypass the Suez Canal - and its associated fees - by making a 6,500km detour around via Horn of Africa on the return leg of China-Europe-US voyages.
According to shipping market analyst SeaIntel, 115 vessels have taken the longer route since last October. It estimates that normally, 78 of those voyages would have gone through the Suez Canal, while the other 37 vessels would normally have passed through the Panama Canal.
Using the South Africa route would save on average $235,000 per voyage, SeaIntel has calculated. The week needed to cover the extra distance also helps them stretch deliveries and absorb overcapacity. Alternatively falling fuel prices mean the ships could afford to take the longer route at a faster speed, thus taking the same amount of time as using the canal, the report found.
Either way, it is not welcome news for the canals. Last year, Egypt completed an $8.5bn expansion of the Suez Canal to allow two lanes of traffic and reduce transit time. Panama Canal is on the verge of opening a new traffic lane.
"If the canals want to change the economics of the routing choices, the Panama Canal would need to cut prices by a third, while the Suez Canal would need a cut of roughly half," the report added.
The decision to use the South African route also affects a vessel's carbon footprint. SeaIntel calculated that the increased fuel consumption would mean an additional 6,800 tonnes of CO2 emitted per voyage.