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Everything You Need To Know About A Panama Canal Visit


Modified: December 27, 2023

by Anett Rooks



Welcome to the world-famous Panama Canal, a marvel of engineering and a significant international waterway connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As one of the most important transportation routes, the Panama Canal has played a pivotal role in global trade and has become a popular destination for tourists from all over the world.


The history, location, and impact of the Panama Canal make it an intriguing destination for travelers seeking adventure, cultural exploration, and an appreciation for human ingenuity. Whether you’re a history buff, engineering enthusiast, or simply want to witness a modern engineering marvel, a visit to the Panama Canal is an experience like no other.


Completed in 1914, the Panama Canal has a fascinating history that spans over a century. It was initially a French project, which faced numerous challenges before being taken over by the United States. The construction was marked by groundbreaking engineering techniques and the sacrifice of thousands of lives. Today, the Panama Canal stands as a testament to human tenacity and innovation.


Located in the narrowest part of the American continent, the Panama Canal cuts through the Isthmus of Panama, separating North and South America. It stretches approximately 50 miles, connecting the Atlantic Ocean in the east to the Pacific Ocean in the west. The strategic geographic position of the canal has made it a vital shortcut for ships traveling between the two oceans, saving them from the lengthy and dangerous voyage around Cape Horn.


The Panama Canal’s significance cannot be overstated. It revolutionized global trade by providing a safer and more efficient route for ships, allowing for the transportation of goods between the east and west coasts of the Americas and beyond. It has facilitated the growth of economies, opened new markets, and brought people from different continents closer together. The canal’s impact on international trade and maritime transportation cannot be understated.


In recent years, the Panama Canal underwent an ambitious expansion project, which was completed in 2016. This expansion doubled the canal’s capacity, allowing for the passage of larger vessels known as post-Panamax ships. The expansion has further enhanced the canal’s importance as a critical waterway and has opened up new opportunities for global trade.


History of the Panama Canal

The history of the Panama Canal dates back to the early 16th century when European explorers first thought of constructing a water passage to facilitate trade and navigation between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The idea gained significant momentum during the 19th century as the need for a shorter route between the two oceans became evident.


Initial efforts to construct the canal were undertaken by the French in the late 19th century. Led by Ferdinand de Lesseps, the renowned builder of the Suez Canal, the French made considerable progress in the early stages. However, they faced numerous challenges, including the high mortality rate due to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, as well as the difficult terrain and unstable soil in the region. Financial mismanagement eventually led to the project’s failure, and the French were forced to abandon the endeavor in 1889.


Following the French withdrawal, the United States saw an opportunity to fulfill their ambition of a transoceanic canal. In 1903, the United States orchestrated the separation of Panama from Colombia, which allowed them to negotiate the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, granting them control of the canal zone.


Under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States commenced the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904. The project faced numerous formidable challenges, primarily the deadly diseases prevalent in the region and the engineering difficulties posed by the mountainous terrain. However, the expertise and determination of the American engineers, coupled with the successful implementation of innovative measures such as mosquito control and improved sanitation practices, contributed to the ultimate success of the project.


The Panama Canal was officially opened on August 15, 1914, with the passage of the SS Ancon. The completion of the canal marked a significant milestone in the history of global navigation and had a profound impact on international trade. It reduced the distance traveled by ships between the east and west coasts of the Americas by approximately 8,000 miles, saving time and costs for maritime transportation.


Over the years, the Panama Canal has undergone several significant transformations and expansions. The original locks were replaced with larger ones between 1939 and 1942, allowing for the passage of bigger vessels. In the early 2000s, plans were made to expand the canal and accommodate the growing demand for larger ships. The ambitious expansion project, completed in 2016, included the construction of a new set of locks to facilitate the passage of post-Panamax vessels, increasing the canal’s capacity and further solidifying its importance in global trade.


The history of the Panama Canal is a testament to human perseverance, innovation, and the desire to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. It remains a remarkable feat of engineering and a symbol of the progress and development of modern civilization.


Location and Geography of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is strategically located in the narrowest part of the Isthmus of Panama, a land bridge that connects North and South America. Situated between the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south, the canal cuts through the country of Panama, creating a vital maritime pathway for international trade.


Spanning approximately 50 miles from the city of Colón on the Atlantic coast to Balboa on the Pacific coast, the Panama Canal traverses a diverse range of landscapes, including dense rainforests, swamps, and artificial lakes. The canal’s geography was a significant obstacle during its construction, as it presented unique challenges for engineers and laborers.


At its Atlantic entrance, the Panama Canal begins at the Caribbean Sea, near the city of Colón. From there, it extends across the Gatun Lake, a man-made reservoir created by the Gatun Dam. The lake serves as a crucial water source for the operation of the canal, providing a stable water level that allows ships to navigate through the canal locks.


The canal continues its journey through the Gaillard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut, which winds its way through the continental divide. This section of the canal was one of the most challenging to construct due to the unstable soil and constant landslides. However, with the use of dynamite and the persistent efforts of the workers, the cut was successfully completed, creating a navigable path through the mountainous terrain.


As ships approach the Pacific side of the canal, they enter the Pedro Miguel Locks, a set of two interconnected locks that lower vessels to the level of the Miraflores Lake. From there, the ships pass through the final set of locks, known as the Miraflores Locks, which bring them down to sea level on the Pacific side.


The Panama Canal’s location and geography provide a unique ecosystem that supports a rich biodiversity. The surrounding rainforests and protected areas are home to numerous plant and animal species, including sloths, monkeys, and a wide variety of birds. The canal zone also serves as a valuable habitat for aquatic creatures, such as crocodiles, manatees, and various fish species.


Visitors to the Panama Canal can explore the diverse geography and experience the engineering marvels up close. Observation decks and visitor centers offer panoramic views of the Gatun Locks and Miraflores Locks, allowing spectators to witness the impressive operation of raising and lowering ships through the lock chambers.


The location and geography of the Panama Canal not only make it a significant transportation route but also provide a unique ecosystem and scenic beauty that attracts visitors from around the world. It is a testament to the harmonious coexistence of human engineering and natural splendor.


Importance and Impact of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is of immense importance in global trade and has had a profound impact on maritime transportation, economies, and international relations. Its strategic location and engineering marvels have made it a vital link between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, facilitating the movement of goods and reducing costs and travel time for ships.


One of the key advantages of the Panama Canal is the significant reduction in voyage distances. Prior to its construction, ships had to navigate around the treacherous Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America, which added thousands of miles to their journey. The canal’s construction, however, created a shortcut that saves ships approximately 8,000 miles, enabling faster and more efficient trade between the east and west coasts of the Americas and beyond.


The shorter voyage distances made possible by the Panama Canal have had a transformative effect on international trade. It has opened up new markets, connected economies, and stimulated economic growth around the world. The canal has facilitated the transportation of various goods, including raw materials, manufactured goods, and energy resources, contributing significantly to global commerce.


By providing a safer and more efficient route for ships, the Panama Canal has also had a positive impact on maritime transportation. It has reduced the risks associated with navigating around Cape Horn’s dangerous waters, mitigating the potential for accidents, and ensuring safer passage for vessels. The canal’s infrastructure, including locks and channels, enables ships to navigate through varying water levels, further enhancing their safety and efficiency.


The Panama Canal has not only revolutionized trade and transportation but has also played a crucial role in shaping geopolitics and international relations. The control and management of the canal have been historically significant, with the United States exercising control over the canal zone for much of its history. However, in 1999, full control of the canal was officially transferred to Panama, marking a milestone in the nation’s sovereignty and the canal’s importance as a symbol of national pride.


The canal’s impact extends beyond its economic and geopolitical significance. It has become a major tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world who come to witness the engineering marvel up close. The Panama Canal Museum, located near the Miraflores Locks, offers an in-depth exploration of the canal’s history, construction, and its importance in global trade.


The Panama Canal expansion project, completed in 2016, further emphasized the importance of this waterway. The expansion enabled the passage of larger vessels known as post-Panamax ships, increasing the canal’s capacity and allowing for the transportation of greater volumes of cargo. This expansion has enhanced the canal’s competitiveness and solidified its role as a pivotal waterway in the global shipping industry.


The importance and impact of the Panama Canal cannot be overstated. Its role in facilitating trade, reducing voyage distances, and promoting economic growth have made it an indispensable component of the global supply chain. As a symbol of human ingenuity and innovation, the Panama Canal continues to shape the modern world.


Canal Expansion Project

The Panama Canal expansion project, completed in 2016, was a monumental undertaking aimed at increasing the canal’s capacity and accommodating larger vessels known as post-Panamax ships. The expansion was a response to the growing demand for more efficient and cost-effective maritime transportation, as well as the need to maintain the canal’s competitiveness in the global shipping industry.


The expansion project included the construction of a third set of locks, in addition to the existing locks at Gatun and Miraflores. These new locks, known as the Cocoli Locks on the Pacific side and the Agua Clara Locks on the Atlantic side, are significantly larger in size and capable of handling much larger vessels.


The expanded locks feature innovative engineering design and state-of-the-art technology. They utilize rolling gates rather than the traditional swinging gates, allowing for a smoother passage of ships. The locks also incorporate water-saving basins that recycle water and minimize the amount of fresh water used during operations.


One of the primary objectives of the expansion was to increase the canal’s capacity and accommodate the growing size of vessels in the global shipping industry. The post-Panamax ships, which were too large to pass through the original canal, can now navigate through the expanded locks. These larger vessels have a carrying capacity of up to 14,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), compared to the previous limit of around 5,000 TEUs.


The expansion of the Panama Canal has had significant implications for global trade and the shipping industry. It has allowed shippers to transport larger volumes of cargo more efficiently, reducing costs and improving supply chain efficiency. The ability to accommodate post-Panamax ships has also created new opportunities for trade and opened up new markets for exporters and importers around the world.


The expansion project has not only increased the canal’s capacity but also enhanced its safety and operational efficiency. With the new locks and technology, the canal can accommodate more ships and reduce waiting times. This has resulted in faster transit times and improved reliability, further solidifying the Panama Canal’s position as a key player in global maritime transportation.


In addition to its direct impact on trade and shipping, the canal expansion project has also generated economic benefits for Panama. The construction of the new locks and associated infrastructure created jobs and stimulated economic growth. The increased transit of ships and goods through the canal has boosted revenue for the Panamanian government, further supporting the country’s development and infrastructure projects.


The Panama Canal expansion project stands as a testament to human innovation and the commitment to adapt to evolving industry needs. It has positioned the canal for future growth and paved the way for continued trade and connectivity between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The expansion has reinforced the canal’s importance as a critical link in the global supply chain and has played a crucial role in driving economic development not just for Panama but for the entire world.


Navigating the Panama Canal

The process of navigating the Panama Canal is a remarkable feat of engineering that allows ships to traverse the isthmus of Panama, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The journey through the canal involves passing through a series of locks and navigating the intricate waterways, all while marveling at the stunning landscapes along the way.


When a ship arrives at the Panama Canal, it is assigned a time slot for transit based on its size, type, and availability. The Panama Canal Authority carefully coordinates the movement of ships to ensure smooth and efficient operations. Once the ship’s turn arrives, it begins its ascent or descent through a series of locks.


The locks act as water elevators, raising or lowering the ship to match the water level of the next stage of the canal. Each set of locks consists of two chambers, which are filled or emptied of water to adjust the ship’s position. The locks use gravity to move the ship, allowing it to pass through the canal without the need for pumps or external assistance.


As the ship enters the first chamber of the locks, it is guided by locomotives, or “mules,” which are specially designed electric trains that run along tracks parallel to the lock walls. The mules help to control the ship’s speed and keep it centered within the lock chamber, ensuring a smooth passage.


Once the ship completes its passage through the locks, it enters the Gaillard Cut, also known as the Culebra Cut. This section of the canal is a narrow waterway carved out of the mountainous terrain. The ship navigates through the cut, surrounded by lush rainforests and stunning scenery, while carefully following the designated channel.


After passing through the Gaillard Cut, the ship reaches the Gatun Lake, a vast artificial lake created by the Gatun Dam. The lake serves as a crucial water source for the operation of the locks, maintaining a consistent water level within the canal. The ship continues its journey across the lake, enjoying the serene beauty of the surrounding rainforest.


On the Pacific side of the canal, the ship approaches the Miraflores Locks, the final set of locks before reaching the Pacific Ocean. Similar to the process on the Atlantic side, the ship descends through the locks, guided by the mules, until it reaches sea level and continues its voyage towards the open waters of the Pacific Ocean.


The entire process of navigating the Panama Canal is a fascinating experience for both crew members and spectators. Visitors can witness the intricate operation of the locks, watch as ships of various sizes pass through the chambers, and marvel at the precision and coordination required to ensure a safe and efficient transit.


The Panama Canal is an engineering marvel that seamlessly connects two vast bodies of water. Navigating through its locks and waterways is a testament to human ingenuity and the desire to create efficient routes for global trade and transportation.


Locks and Operations at the Canal

The locks are crucial components of the Panama Canal’s intricate system, allowing ships to navigate the elevation changes and pass through the waterway. These impressive structures, combined with careful operations, facilitate the safe and efficient movement of vessels through the canal.


The Panama Canal features a total of six locks, three on the Atlantic side and three on the Pacific side. The locks are divided into pairs, with each pair consisting of two chambers. The Gatun Locks on the Atlantic side and the Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side each have two pairs of chambers, while the Pedro Miguel Locks have a single pair of chambers.


Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide and can accommodate ships up to 1,000 feet in length and 160 feet in beam. As a ship enters a lock chamber, massive gates close behind it, creating a watertight seal. The chamber is then filled with water, raising the ship to match the water level of the next lock or section of the canal.


Water levels in the Panama Canal vary depending on factors such as tides and rainfall. To maintain a consistent water level within the canal, the locks use an ingenious water-saving system. As a ship exits a lock chamber, the water is released into basins, preserving a significant amount of water that can be reused for the next ship’s transit.


Operations at the canal are meticulously managed by the Panama Canal Authority (ACP). An intricate scheduling system assigns time slots for ships to enter the canal, ensuring a smooth flow of traffic and minimizing waiting times. The ACP monitors weather conditions, ship movements, and water levels to maintain operational efficiency and safety.


Specialized personnel, known as pilots, also play a vital role in the canal’s operations. These highly trained professionals guide ships through the canal, providing expertise on navigation, clearance, and operational procedures. Pilots have an in-depth understanding of the canal’s complexities, including the various dimensions and dynamics of different vessel types.


Furthermore, locomotives, commonly referred to as “mules,” assist in the safe transit of ships through the locks. These locomotives run on tracks parallel to the lock walls and are synchronized to move in tandem with the ship, keeping it centered and preventing any mishaps during the locking process. The mules provide additional stability, especially during turbulent water conditions.


Operations at the canal operate around the clock, ensuring continuity and maximizing efficiency. The canal accommodates various types of vessels, including cargo ships, passenger ships, and even cruise ships. Ships are carefully assigned their designated transit time based on their size and classification, optimizing the usage of the locks and minimizing congestion.


The locks and operational procedures at the Panama Canal are a testament to human engineering and innovation. They enable the safe and precise passage of vessels through the canal, facilitating global trade and contributing to the efficient movement of goods across the world.


Panamax and Post-Panamax Ships

The terms “Panamax” and “Post-Panamax” refer to the size limitations of ships that can navigate through the Panama Canal. These classifications have significant implications for the shipping industry and the types of vessels that can utilize the canal for transit.


Panamax ships are those that are specifically designed to fit within the dimensions of the locks of the original Panama Canal. These ships have a maximum width of 106 feet (32.31 meters), a maximum length of 965 feet (294.13 meters), and a maximum draft of 39.5 feet (12.04 meters). Panamax ships have been the standard for many years and have played a significant role in global maritime trade.


These size limitations were set as the maximum dimensions that could pass through the canal’s locks and navigate the waterway safely. The term “Panamax” itself is derived from the maximum dimensions allowable for ships to transit the Panama Canal.


With the completion of the canal’s expansion project in 2016, the concept of Post-Panamax ships emerged. Post-Panamax ships are larger vessels that exceed the size limitations of the original locks. These ships have wider beams, longer lengths, and deeper drafts than Panamax vessels.


Post-Panamax ships have a maximum beam width of up to 160 feet (48.77 meters), allowing them to carry significantly more cargo compared to Panamax ships. They can also have lengths up to 1,200 feet (365.76 meters) and drafts up to 50 feet (15.24 meters).


The ability to accommodate Post-Panamax ships was one of the primary motivations behind the expansion of the Panama Canal. By constructing larger locks, the canal now has the capacity to facilitate the transit of these larger vessels, therefore attracting more global trade and meeting the evolving needs of the shipping industry.


Post-Panamax ships have become increasingly common in the shipping industry due to their larger carrying capacity, which enables the transportation of more goods per voyage. These vessels have revolutionized international trade by allowing for greater efficiency and economies of scale.


Larger shipping companies and alliances have gradually shifted towards utilizing Post-Panamax vessels for their operations. These ships can carry more containers, reducing the overall cost per unit and improving profitability. The increased efficiency of Post-Panamax vessels has had a significant impact on the shipping industry, enabling faster trade flows and more cost-effective transportation of goods.


While the Panama Canal expansion has opened up opportunities for Post-Panamax ships, Panamax vessels still play a vital role in maritime trade. Many ports and regions around the world are not equipped to handle the larger size of Post-Panamax ships, making the use of Panamax vessels necessary for certain trade routes.


The classifications of Panamax and Post-Panamax ships directly influence global shipping strategies, vessel designs, and trade patterns. The ability to accommodate larger vessels through the Panama Canal further solidifies its importance as a critical trade route and ensures its continued relevance in the ever-changing dynamics of the international shipping industry.


Tips for Visiting the Panama Canal

Visiting the Panama Canal is an awe-inspiring experience that offers a glimpse into the engineering marvel and historical significance of this renowned waterway. To make the most of your visit, here are some helpful tips:

  1. Plan your visit in advance: Check the official Panama Canal website for the latest information on visiting hours, fees, and any restrictions. Consider the best time of day to visit to avoid large crowds.
  2. Watch a ship transit: Witnessing a ship passing through the locks is a must-see sight. Check the canal schedule to find out when ships are expected to transit and plan your visit accordingly. It’s a fascinating process that showcases the impressive operation of the canal.
  3. Visit the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center: Located near Panama City, the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center provides panoramic views of the locks and informative exhibits about the canal’s history and operations. Enjoy the interactive displays and observation decks for an up-close view of the passage of ships.
  4. Explore the Gatun Lake: Take a boat tour or kayak on Gatun Lake, the largest artificial lake in the canal system. Enjoy the tranquility of the surroundings and marvel at the ecological diversity, including wildlife such as monkeys, birds, and even crocodiles.
  5. Visit the Panama Canal Museum: Located near the Miraflores Locks, the museum offers a comprehensive look into the canal’s construction, history, and its impact on global trade. Learn about the challenges faced during its construction and the significance of this modern engineering wonder.
  6. Take a guided tour: Consider booking a guided tour to gain in-depth knowledge and insights from knowledgeable guides. They can provide fascinating facts, historical context, and answer your questions about the canal and its operations.
  7. Explore the surrounding area: While visiting the Panama Canal, take the opportunity to explore other nearby attractions. Visit Casco Viejo, the historic district of Panama City, to experience the colonial architecture and vibrant culture. Explore Soberania National Park, located close to the canal, for nature walks and birdwatching.
  8. Stay hydrated and protected: Panama’s tropical climate can be hot and humid. Carry a water bottle and sunscreen to stay hydrated and protected from the sun. Wear comfortable clothing and shoes for walking during your visit.
  9. Respect the rules and guidelines: Follow the instructions provided by canal staff, especially when observing ship transits from vantage points. Respect any designated areas or barriers for your safety and the safety of others.

Visiting the Panama Canal is a journey into history, engineering, and natural beauty. By following these tips, you can have an enriching and memorable experience while appreciating the significance of this iconic international waterway.


Nearby Attractions and Activities

While visiting the Panama Canal, there are plenty of other attractions and activities in the surrounding areas that you can explore to enhance your trip. From historical sites to natural wonders, here are some nearby attractions to consider:

  1. Explore Casco Viejo: Located in Panama City, Casco Viejo is the historic district known for its charming colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, and vibrant atmosphere. Take a stroll through its narrow alleys, visit historical buildings, and indulge in delicious cuisine at the local restaurants and cafes.
  2. Visit the Biomuseo: Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the Biomuseo is a museum dedicated to Panama’s biodiversity and ecological heritage. Explore the interactive exhibits and learn about the country’s unique flora and fauna, contributing to a deeper understanding of Panama’s natural wonders.
  3. Discover Soberania National Park: Just a short distance from the canal, Soberania National Park is a nature lover’s paradise. Embark on hiking trails through lush rainforests, go birdwatching to spot diverse avian species, or take a boat tour along the Chagres River to immerse yourself in the untouched beauty of the area.
  4. Visit the Panama Canal Railway: Experience a different perspective of the canal with a journey on the historic Panama Canal Railway. This railway offers picturesque views as it runs parallel to the canal, providing glimpses of ships passing through the locks and the lush landscapes of the region.
  5. Take a boat tour through the Gatun Lake: Explore the expansive Gatun Lake on a boat tour. Glide through the tranquil waters, witness the canal’s operations from a different angle, and admire the abundant wildlife that calls the lake home, including monkeys, crocodiles, and a variety of bird species.
  6. Indulge in local cuisine: Panama is a melting pot of culinary flavors influenced by its diverse cultural heritage. Don’t miss the opportunity to savor traditional dishes such as ceviche, sancocho (a hearty soup), and plantains. Visit local markets or restaurants to experience the richness of Panamanian gastronomy.
  7. Relax on the beaches: Panama is renowned for its pristine beaches, providing a perfect setting for relaxation and water-based activities. From the golden shores of the Pacific coast to the picturesque islands of Bocas del Toro, there are plenty of beach options to choose from, each offering its own unique charm.
  8. Go shopping at the Panama Canal Zone Duty-Free Shops: If you’re looking for some retail therapy, visit the duty-free shops located in the Panama Canal Zone. Here, you can find a variety of goods, including jewelry, clothing, electronics, and souvenirs, often at more affordable prices than elsewhere.

These attractions and activities near the Panama Canal provide a well-rounded experience, enabling you to explore the rich culture, natural beauty, and historical significance of Panama. Whether you’re interested in history, nature, or simply enjoying the local cuisine, there’s something for everyone to enjoy in this vibrant country.



The Panama Canal stands as a testament to human ingenuity, engineering brilliance, and the interconnectedness of our globalized world. From its rich history to its vital role in international trade, the Panama Canal has fascinated people from all corners of the globe for over a century.


Through the careful planning and perseverance of countless individuals, the Panama Canal has become a remarkable feat of engineering that has revolutionized maritime transportation. Its strategic location and innovative lock system have allowed ships to bypass treacherous routes, saving both time and resources.


The canal’s impact extends beyond trade and economics. It has become an emblem of national pride for Panama, a symbol of its sovereignty and resilience. The canal expansion project in 2016 further solidified its significance by accommodating larger vessels, cementing its role as a key player in the global shipping industry.


Visiting the Panama Canal offers a unique opportunity to witness this marvel of human achievement. The locks, the ships, and the intricate operations provide a captivating experience and a deeper understanding of the challenges and triumphs of constructing and maintaining such a monumental infrastructure.


Surrounding the canal, there are attractions and activities that enhance the overall journey. From exploring the historic district of Casco Viejo to immersing oneself in the natural wonders of Soberania National Park, there is something for every visitor to enjoy.


Whether you’re a history enthusiast, engineering admirer, or simply a curious traveler, a visit to the Panama Canal is a must. It is a testament to human progress in overcoming geographical barriers and connecting continents.


As the Panama Canal continues to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of global trade, its legacy endures. It is a constant reminder of the importance of ambitious vision, international cooperation, and the power of human innovation.


So, embrace the opportunity to explore this engineering marvel, be captivated by the history and operations, and bask in the significance of the Panama Canal’s impact on our interconnected world.