Vanity airport project grounded by cash crunch

mattalaAlmost exactly two years ago, to celebrate the opening of a $210 million international airport in his sleepy seaside home district, then-Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa flew there on his national airline’s biggest jet with a coterie of ministers. The ensuing fanfare, replete with prayers, plaque unveilings and an elaborate red-carpet welcome for the president, was fueled by hopes that the airport would herald the development of once-dinky Hambantota town, which Rajapaksa hoped would become the island country’s “second city,” after the capital, Colombo. He envisioned a commerce and tourism hub with a strategically located port, a 35,000-seat cricket stadium, a 300-acre botanical garden, a state-of-the-art convention center, five-star hotels and smooth four-lane highways connecting them all. The port, stadium and airport bear his name.

Financed by massive loans from Chinese banks, the projects in Hambantota rose as wishful, gleaming testaments to Sri Lanka’s development potential, its growing economic partnership with China and Rajapaksa’s confidence in his popularity following his bloody but resounding triumph in the country’s civil war, which ended in May 2009. But on Tuesday, less than three months after he was defeated at the polls by former health minister Maithripala Sirisena, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport will see its last passenger flight for the foreseeable future.

“The opposition was saying that these projects epitomized the waste, the indulgence and the lack of transparency of the Rajapaksa regime,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, the executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, in Colombo. “Wasted money became a core issue of the election campaign. These were obviously vanity projects that he built with the expectation of being in power forever.”

Immediately following Rajapaksa’s defeat, SriLankan Airlines terminated its service to Hambantota, leaving Flydubai, a low-cost carrier from the United Arab Emirates, as the sole operator. Hambantota is a small town, home to roughly 23,000 people, as compared with Colombo’s metropolitan area, where more than 5 million live. To many, Hambantota seemed a strange location for such major transport infrastructure, given that 96 percent of its district’s population is considered rural, and 32 percent live below the poverty line, well above the national average. And despite its new port and proximity to Sri Lanka’s most visited beaches and national parks, the persistent lack of passengers led most airlines to first reduce Hambantota flights to add-ons to regular Colombo services before eliminating the destination altogether.

Last May, while Rajapaksa was still president, Sri Lanka’s minister of civil aviation admitted to Parliament that the airport had only earned about 16,000 Sri Lankan rupees, or $120, in revenue for the entire month, less than what a small roadside restaurant might earn in a day.

Sirisena has vowed to reign in the unwieldy spending and corruption that he said characterized the previous administration. One example is a 26-kilometer expressway between downtown Colombo and that city’s airport, which reportedly cost double the budgeted amount. At a whopping 1.8 billion rupees, or $13.5 million at current exchange rates, per kilometer it is the most expensive road ever built. During Rajapaksa’s reign, a gargantuan undersea boulder in Hambantota’s port was removed for $40 million.

Eran Wickramaratne, the new deputy minister for investment promotion, says the current government now has to figure out how sunken investments like the airport can be salvaged, or if they can be at all. “Whichever way you look at it, the business model in Hambantota won’t work, probably for at least the next decade,” he said. “Development should happen around population centers. What Hambantota lacks is just that. The day I visited the airport there, I asked the sole immigration officer how many passports she’d stamped that day. She said, ‘One.’”

Four weeks ago, management of the airport’s operations was shifted to Colombo, and the airport’s CEO, Derick Karunaratne, was transferred there as the head communications officer for the national aviation authority. His post in Hambantota is now vacant. And while he was still ready to provide a vision of a rosy future for that airport, he admitted, “We just don’t have a destination here.”

“It’s like a chicken-and-egg problem. Airlines are waiting on development to happen here, but without them it is tougher for us. At this stage, if I’m an airline’s CEO, I’d be wondering how I’ll sell my seats,” he said.

The airport’s failure is not just a public-relations debacle and financial fiasco, but an environmental disaster, too. After activists succeeded in blocking plans to expand a nearby landing strip, the Rajapaksa government decided to use 5,000 acres of forested land in Mattala instead, about six miles away. A village outside Hambantota, it is home to at least 400 elephants, according to Prithiviraj Fernando, the chairman of the Centre for Conservation and Research.

“They bulldozed most of that land,” he said. “And with all the associated encroachment such as highways, we’ve lost more natural habitat than people like to consider.”

On a recent day, the area surrounding the airport was abuzz with animal life. Bright-blue-winged birds flew from their perches on electricity poles toward the air-traffic-control tower. A pair of civets scampered across the airport’s entrance road. A man herded domestic buffalo through a nearby field, rapping their branded behinds with a rattan stick. Last January, a Fly Dubai jet was forced to make an emergency landing after it collided with a flock of peacocks, the third such incident in the airport’s first year of operation.

Karunaratne, the former airport CEO, said proposals were being drawn up to make use of the airport’s relatively wild setting. “We’re aggressively looking for investors from Singapore and the Middle East; they have the money,” he said. “We could make Hambantota a visa-free, duty-free destination, with a golf course, safari camps. It could be a family destination, it could explode, just see.”

Fernando agreed that utilizing the airport to promote wildlife appreciation could be a way to offset, in a small way, the adverse impact of the construction, saying, “Maybe they could turn it into a wildlife viewing area — you’re almost guaranteed an elephant.”

In the meantime, the airport is host to more humble offerings. On March 18, a Buddhist ceremony was arranged for employees to commemorate the facility’s second anniversary. Three monks sat in front of a statue of the Buddha in the arrivals hall, tying white bands around the employees’ wrists as a blessing. Simultaneously, dozens of schoolchildren in all-white uniforms were led around the otherwise-deserted grounds on a field trip. When the ceremony was over, and the kids had departed, it was almost completely silent — except for the sound of gusts of wind, forceful enough to be mistaken for an airplane.(Al Jazeera)

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