IN FEBRUARY 2009, during the final throes of Sri Lanka’s 25-year-long civil war, Tamil Tiger rebels packed two light aircraft with explosives and flew them towards Colombo. The pilots planned to execute kamikaze attacks on the capital. Mercifully, they were shot down. But in the process one plane slammed into a high-rise government building, killing two people and injuring 50. Thus ended one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. Today, five years after the guns were silenced, Sri Lanka is staking its hopes for peace and prosperity on a more benign form of aviation: commercial flights delivering holidaymakers.
Official statistics point to undeniable progress. The speed at which tourists have flocked back may even seem tasteless. In July 2009, just two months after the rebels surrendered, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (TDA) recorded a 28% increase in tourists stays compared with the same month a year earlier. At the time, some 280,000 Tamils were being held in internment camps pending security clearance, and the UN was castigating Sri Lanka’s government for the heavy-handedness of its final assault on rebel-held territory. An estimated 7,000 civilians died during the last four months of the war. Yet the allure of the island proved too strong for holidaymakers. When it became clear that the rebels were a spent force, tourism flourished even further. Visitor numbers jumped from 448,000 in 2009 to 654,000 the following year. By 2013, the official count had topped 1.27m.
Even so, this is not as many as the government would like. An official target of 2.5m visitors by 2016 looks unrealistic. Yet, if it is to get close, it will rely on the fortunes of SriLankan Airlines, the flag carrier that accounts for about 60% of air traffic to the country. Having grown capacity over the past two years, the airline has no desire to expand its route network aggressively. Like many state-owned carriers, it is loss-making. Adding more flights than can be filled would not help its performance. So Kapila Chandrasena, its chief executive, sees potential in a different type of growth; one which seems emblematic of the country’s desire to re-integrate with a world that has often regarded it as a pariah.
Later this year, SriLankan Airlines will become a member of the oneworld alliance, a club of 13 airlines which collaborate by selling tickets on each other’s flights. “Right now we are servicing 62 destinations. Overnight it will be close to 800 destinations,” says Mr Chandrasena. His airline already has codeshare agreements with three oneworld members, S7 Airlines (from Russia), Malaysia Airlines and Royal Jordanian Airlines. He is confident that such partnerships will be extended to other members—hopefully including industry goliaths British Airways, American Airlines and Cathay Pacific.
The easier it becomes for European, American and Asian holidaymakers to fly to Colombo, the more Sri Lanka benefits, irrespective of whether they arrive on a SriLankan Airlines plane. Mr Chandrasena reckons that inbound flight bookings have an economic multiplier of eight. This, he thinks, puts the financial losses of his airline into perspective. “SriLankan Airlines itself contributes about 2.2% of GDP,” he estimates. “As more and more tourists are coming, we have a more tourism-dependent economy.”
Increasing the number of direct flights to the island is therefore crucial for Sri Lanka, and teaming up with oneworld marks a cost-effective step forward. But the flag carrier is also looking beyond its own borders. It already operates more than 80 flights a week to eight Indian cities. If it can increase those and, say, add extra flights to the Maldives, it thinks Colombo could become a hub for the sub-region.
More ambitiously, Mr Chandrasena wants the capital to become a bridging point between China and Africa. “We see major high-volume traffic flows between Asia and Africa, and especially China and Africa,” he says. “From a geographical point of view, the shortest route is above Sri Lanka.” The jury is still out on this latter goal. SriLankan Airlines may serve four points in China, but it serves none in Africa (notwithstanding a new route to the Seychelles, which is offered by Mihin Lanka, its low-cost affiliate). Mr Chandrasena is keen to add one or two big African hubs to his network, but he admits that a local partner will be required to “fan out across the continent”. Wooing this partner may prove tricky. Ethiopian Airlines already flies to four Chinese destinations and is adding a fifth in March; Kenya Airways has its own partnerships with two Chinese carriers; and South African Airways is likely to favour Etihad, with which it has signed a codeshare agreement, to improve its connections with China.
By far the biggest obstacle, however, is the domestic political landscape. When David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, decided to visit the Tamil heartland of Jaffna during last year’s Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka, he embarrassed the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet it highlighted the disgust of many at unresolved allegations of war crimes. International sanctions have not been ruled out. The country’s persecuted press is not afraid to call Mr Rajapaksa a dictator. It has also questioned the validity of official statistics, including the TDA’s tourism figures. In 2001, Tamil Tigers destroyed half of SriLankan Airlines’ fleet in an attack on Colombo International Airport. Today, it might be its biggest shareholder, the Sri Lankan government, holding it back. (The Economist)