The dual carriageway could be anywhere… Germany, the US, Sweden… Its sharp new signs direct traffic off a wide ramp towards the spiffy airport, still smelling of clean since its inauguration in 2013.
Except that my car is the only one on this road.
I share part of the highway with a herd of buffalo. Eventually a lone bicycle pedals up towards me, in my lane, heading the wrong way.
No one’s coming.
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The French call it the folie des grandeurs.
In English we say something has “gone to his head”.
In Sri Lanka they call it Hambantota International Airport (also known as Mattala Rajapaksa), a folly built by Sri Lanka’s previous president at a cost of US$210 million.
On a recent whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka I decided to take a look, as would any worthy aviation geek. I don’t love flying, but I’m hooked on everything that surrounds it.
It looks like any modern airport. The access way, the statuary at the entrance and then – a gate.
A quick hop to the military guardhouse and the gate squeals open, just wide enough to let a single automobile through.
A few twists and turns and the entrance to the airport comes into view.
A bit desolate. At the door, two ATMs stand flashing, a security guard marches back and forth, and neatly aligned baggage trolleys wait for hands to push them.
And then this sign: Entrance Fee 100 Rs.
Entrance fee? To an airport?
Right now this entrance fee is the airport’s main moneymaker – and not a huge one at that. The day I visited, a single other family was there. Some days no one comes at all.
The automatic glass door slides open and the guard snaps to attention, pointing from my bag to the conveyor belt. Like an airport.
I recover my bag at the other end and walk into a magnificent hall of stone and marble, with soaring ceilings and glass partitions that keep out the heat beating over a manicured lawn. My lone footseps echo like a clap in an empty theater.
A glass-encased Buddha sits serenely at one end, wishing everyone a safe journey.
The departure hall is cordoned off and lined with empty check-in counters, its lights dimmed. People mill around – but they are staff, some of the more than 100 air traffic controllers, tourist office hostesses, bank tellers, security guards, cafeteria workers, cleaners, gardeners and shop assistants who work here.
A single flight is due today, at 6pm with FlyDubai, a low-cost airline. Staff is optimistic that another flight might be added.
A few SriLankan Airlines flights tried their luck (ordered to do so by the then government) but halted operations right after the election because the route was so unprofitable.
Some days, two or even three passengers embark or disembark here. Often, no one leaves the plane here at all. Most flights are in transit to or from Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, their passengers probably wondering why on earth they are landing in this ghost terminal.
This manifest shows that on one specific day, all of three passengers disembarked here.
The story behind Hambantota International
The initial justification for the airport was its location in the country’s South, where many travelers head for sea and sun. Having an airport nearby would seem to make sense.
Except that when the airport was initially planned, Sri Lanka was headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a native of Hambantota, a fishing village rebuilt after the 2004 tsunami. He was able to secure financing from China, keen to strengthen her foothold in this part of the world.
And, it was argued, landing at Hambantota would cut travel time to the South’s resorts.
But both the motorway and the railway line to the South have been improved and extended so you’d think that would be enough.
I decided to check, just for fun. Here’s what I found.
Driving from Hambantota airport to Galle, a World Heritage Site and one of Sri Lanka’s most visited cities, takes 3hrs 42min (according to the transportation website, Rome2rio.com). From Colombo, already served by an international airport, the ride takes only 1hr 49min – about half, mostly because of the quality of the road. From Colombo airport to Weligama right on Sri Lanka’s southern tip is a drive that takes 2hrs 2min – the exact time it would take from Hambantota.
There is no time advantage, at least not yet. Had President Rajapaksa been re-elected, he might have followed through on road improvements and cut travel time that way.
Instead, the airport sits among a plethora of equally white elephants: the deep-water port (although the new government is now saying it might push ahead and finish it), a five-star hotel, a 35,000-spectator cricket field (the town’s population is around 11,000) and a world-class convention center, lying empty (it has hosted only one event since its inauguration and now handles mostly weddings).
These I didn’t see but if they’re in the same shape as the airport, they’ll be beautiful, modern, pristine – and filled with absolutely no one.
If and when this mostly rural district is developed, the airport might come in handy, providing a boost to this poor region. But not yet, not now.
And the price paid for the airport has been high, not only in the debt that will saddle Sri Lanka for years but in environmental destruction: the airport straddles several wildlife habitats including elephant and leopard. It also sits right along a bird migratory route, which might explain why three major bird collisions – one with a flock of peacocks – were reported in less than a year by (the very few) airlines flying into this airport.
There’s not much chance of rerouting the birds or of convincing more airlines to fly… so at least for now, I’d be inclined to believe this just might be the world’s emptiest airport.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- There is no public transportation to the airport but you can drive or take a taxi.
- When you get to the closed gate just ask the guard at the guardhouse to open it – he will, just for you.
- There are rumors local operators are guiding “white elephant tours” to see the various over-promised structures, but I haven’t been able to find anything about them. If you do let me know!