HAMBANTOTA (EconomyNext) – Sri Lanka poured millions of dollars to turn an arid coastal town into South Asia’s business hub, but the ambitious venture has come to an abrupt halt leaving white elephants which are becoming a new tourist attraction.
Grandiose projects are the legacy of president Mahinda Rajapakse who was voted out last month after a decade in power and before fulfilling a desire to transform his home constituency of Hambantota into a commercial capital.
Rajapakse spent lavishly on several high-profile construction projects, ignoring feasibility studies or environmental concerns in an area that is home to wildlife, including elephants, leopards and bears.
Rajapakse’s $210 million international airport in Hambantota, opened in 2013, failed to take off as it made no economic sense for the national carrier, Sri Lankan airlines, to service a destination just half an hour away from the main Colombo airport.
Soon after Rajapakse’s defeat, Sri Lankan stopped flying to the vanity airport named after Rajapakse, leaving the Dubai-based budget carrier Fly Dubai as the only airline to use the Rajapakse International (MRIA).
The new Ports and Aviation minister Arjuna Ranatunga has ordered the airport to shut down its air conditioning and water fountains after the daily Fly Dubai flight.
The 562-employee airport handles only a handful of passengers a day, but many more visitors turn up just to marvel at the facility protected by 14 kilometres of electric fencing to keep wild jumbos away.
The airport is also on the migratory route of birds and has seen a high rate of bird-hits, underscoring the warnings by environmentalists that apart from being a white elephant, the airport is also an ecological disaster.
A Fly Dubai jet was grounded after an engine sucked in a peacock last year and since then motorcycle riders are deployed along the length of the runway to chase peacocks or straying monitor lizards before an aircraft takes off.
Even the first test flight by a Sri Lankan airline Airbus had its wind shield shattered following a bird hit on landing.
"The challenge for me is to energise this place," the airport’s chief executive Derick Karunaratne said. "Just because there is an airport, airlines don’t fly in. They want a destination and we are yet to build it."
He does not expect profits any time soon.
-Port of debt-
The $361 million Chinese-funded harbour in Hambantota is also deep in debt, but it is attracting car transhipment business from neighbouring India. Officials say the port could take more than a decade to break even.
In the meantime, the Mahinda Rajapakse Port remains an attraction on the tourist trail of white elephants. However, officials say the harbour could be salvaged if it adds a container terminal.
Overlooking the port is another extravagance — the $15.5 million international conference hall whose main event had been a youth forum held to coincide with the 2013 Commonwealth summit hosted in the capital Colombo some 250 kilometres (150 miles) away.
These days, the convention centre provides an unconventional backdrop for shooting wedding photos and holding receptions.
The conference hall and the airport were completed in time for the summit, but neither was used because some foreign leaders were reluctant to travel the distance.
However, Hambantota has some of the best, and most expensive roads in the country and an expressway linking the capital is under construction. A rail link is also being built.
A fly-over and an interchange has cost $52 million. The interchange is part of an expressway that is yet to be constructed.
A fly-over and an interchange on an expressway that still does not exist has cost $52 million.
In an ambitious bid to dislodge Colombo’s status as a commercial hub, Rajapakse built six-lane highways and fly-overs, more than in any other city in the island, hoping to make his home town a hot spot for commerce and industry.
The only congestion on the airport access road this week was caused by a heard of buffaloes holding up a media crew just after the lone Fly Dubai flight in the morning.
-Artificial wet zone-
A short drive away is another audacious venture of the previous regime, a 300-acre (120 hectare) botanical gardens trying to artificially create wet-zone conditions in an area where water is a luxury.
Within the gardens, a kilometre-long avenue has been lined with weeping willows which are watered through a 24-hour drip irrigation system. Drinking water is a luxury in Hambantota where ground water is brackish.
"We are growing wet zone plants which are not native to this area," a curator said during a guided tour of the show piece opened by Rajapakse during the Commonwealth summit. He said they use 800,000 litres of water a day for the park and the water is brought from the Ratnapura district.
Many foreign dignitaries skipped a tree planting ceremony at the gardens which guzzles tonnes of water while neighbouring villagers in contrast do not have easy access to drinking water.
"If people know the true extent of the water waste here, there could be a riot," said a university professor. "We thought this was conservation of plants from the area, but caring for plants that require a lot of water may not be sustainable."
Similarly, Rajapakse built an international cricket stadium which became a huge drain on the cricket board which was forced to borrow heavily to pay for the extravagant venue where only a few matches have been played. It has now become a haven for wasps who have interrupted play during rare matches there.
The Mahinda Rajapakse International Cricket Stadium hosted two World Cup matches in 2011, but since then the maintenance of the grounds has been given over to the military and no major tournaments are lined up for this year.
Sri Lanka used the infrastructure at Hambantota to push its unsuccessful bid to host 2018 Commonwealth games which went to Gold Coast of Australia. Sri Lanka promised 4,000 hotel rooms in the region, but very few new ones are coming up.
The government says much of the infrastructure built by the Rajapakse regime may have to be written off as they were not economically viable and the cost of maintenance is prohibitive.
"From an economist’s point of view, we have to write off the investment," said Eran Wickramaratne, the Deputy Minister of Highways and Investment Promotion. "We will have to repay the loans for a long time, but we can’t expect any tangible return from them. This is a terrible waste."
However, he said the sea port could be developed as an industrial zone.
The previous administration had also tried to woo both local and foreign investors to the president’s home town with tax concessions, but there have been no takers, only sightseers.