What if you built an airport and no planes came?

The belief that “if you built it they will come” has not worked for the modern Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (HRI) airport that was built by the Sri Lankan government in the southern part of the island at a cost of over $200 million that has just one daily flight and one weekly one. This article explains what happened.

Hardly anybody goes to Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (HRI) because they have a flight. No, the air transport hub is currently a daily flight or two away from being completely defunct, and the people who do go there tend to be tourists making a side trip from the nearby wildlife parks to see the stunning, fully modern airport in the middle of the jungle for themselves.

I arrived at HRI, which is located in Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota district, in the mid-morning to find a group of tourists huddle together in front of its passenger terminal. I asked them why they wanted to visit an empty airport.

“It is a really beautiful building,” one of them told me matter-of-factly.

This airport is a landmark, a sign of progress in this region of Sri Lanka, which is located in a forested area a 250 kilometer drive from Colombo. The airport has a 12,000 square meter terminal building, 12 check-in counters, two gates, a runway long enough to handle the largest commercial jets, and capacity for one million passengers per year.

Other than that, everything looked as an airport should: the information booth was fully staffed with three sharply dressed young women, security guards were at their posts, cleaners were scrubbing the floor, the souvenir shops glistened, and a small cafeteria had a cook and a cashier dutifully at work. This airport was fully in service, despite the lack of a viable reason for it to be.

The article has many photographs of the gleaming new airport such as this one of a waiting area.

rajapksa airport

This airport was supposed to complement a new deep sea port in the same area called Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Deep Sea Port and a new venue that met the standards for international cricket called the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium and thus transform the area into a major business and tourist hub.

The clue as to this flurry of activity can be seen in the repeated use of ‘Rajapaksa’ which is the name of the president of Sri Lanka who governed the country for a decade, put his relatives in major positions, and pretty much treated the country as his personal fiefdom. All these massive construction projects were done in his home region and were largely funded by the Chinese government which was willing to indulge his grandiose schemes of self-promotion in return for getting a foothold in a strategic location in the Indian Ocean and access to a port. Sadly, these kinds of vanity projects that use public resources to promote individuals are not uncommon.

Rajapaksa was voted out of office last year by an alliance of the opposition and defectors from his own party. There are unverified rumors that the US and the Indian governments, concerned by China’s increased presence and influence in the country, secretly funded the opposition alliance that defeated him. The new government seeks to have closer relations with the US and distance itself from China and is reluctant to pour more money into the airport, and even canceled its role as a hub for a domestic airline, and so we may well end up with a very expensive white elephant.


  1. lorn says

    Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, with a field large enough for nearly anything, and a major port nearby.

    Reminds me of another place with a major port and field:

    You say the natives are getting antsy about Chinese expansion. Seems those two spots are near about ideal for bases if you wanted to control the area. Cam Ranh Bay is big, a well protected port in typhoon country, and it has several large all-weather airfields.

    It is such a compelling idea that it looks like someone else thought of it first:

    Yes, yes, the aficionados will note we already have a base near the Sri Lankan site, Diego Garcia, but DG is quite small and while it has a very nice protected lagoon and one long runway, it lacks a major port or room for much more infrastructure or expansion. The much more expansive Sri Lankan site would be a vast improvement. On the plus side, being well out in the jungle is a plus for the military.

    One question I’ve had has been: What happens to that Chinese man-made island when a typhoon hits it? Waves in that area are recorded as being over 10m high during storms. This seems more than sufficient to sweep the island. Short of paving the sea bottom all around for a kilometer or so it is hard to imagine pouring enough concrete to hold back the sea indefinitely.

    There is also the chance that what had long been a discordant and argumentative cluster of nations around the South China Sea might unify and harmonize, against China.

  2. says

    The same happened in Montreal. Mirabel was one of (if not the) largest and most expensive airports in Canada at the time of its construction. Its location was based on overly optimistic planning and it became little used as a passenger terminal. Fortunately for the owners, they were able to turn Mirabel into a major freight hub for North America, both within the continent and for reaching Europe.


  3. dannorth says

    For Mirabel the problems were compounded by the fact that the transport infrastructures that were supposed to allow passangers to transfer on flights from Montréal/Dorval: a freeway and IIRC a train, were never built nor was a freeway to Ottawa.

    The airport was built quite far from Montréal so it could serve Ottawa also.

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