Sri Lanka's new Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport promises to be a great destination for travellers from all over the world, as well as making a significant contribution to the economic prosperity of this beautiful island in the Indian Ocean.
It's not often that airports are launched - and it's not often that new airports create so much buzz. That's why the opening of Sri Lanka's newest international airport is a genuine event.
Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) is Sri Lanka's second international airport, serving the city of Hambantota in the south of the island. Formally inaugurated on 18 March 2013, the new airport is expected to expand the local aviation industry and act as a catalyst for the country's economic development, enabling international trade, tourism, vocational training and employment.
A salient feature of the airport is that it was built with the surrounding rich flora and fauna in mind. As a result, MRIA has been billed as an eco airport that goes to great lengths to preserve the environment. Even the airport buildings and infrastructure draw inspiration from nature and are designed to blend in with the verdant greenery around the aerodrome.
"We want to market this airport as being completely environmentally friendly so people will want to fly there," says Prasanna Wickramasuriya, chairman of Airports and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) (AASL), which manages MRIA and Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). "We have a wildlife sanctuary nearby, so passengers who are travelling through the airport will soon get the exciting experience of feeding the baby elephants."
MRIA plans to become an aviation hub, not only for the country, but also for south Asia. The AASL hopes that the availability of land and services at reasonable cost will attract aviation-related companies offering services such as aircraft painting, workshops, engine repairs and training schools.
The strategic location of the airport also enables airlines to cover over 60% of the world within eight hours. After all, what's an airport without connectivity?
For visitors to Sri Lanka, MRIA's main appeal is its strategic location. The airport offers easy access to some of the most famous tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. After the end of almost three decades of war, Sri Lanka is rapidly developing into one of the world's most desirable tourist locations.
"Now that the bitter conflict is over, investment is fuelling the tourism industry and visitor numbers are steadily increasing ... Sri Lanka is emerging as one of the planet's best-value destinations," said Lonely Planet recently.
Among the nearby attractions is the sprawling wilderness of Yala National Park. It is the country's most popular nature reserve, home to elephants, leopards, sloth bears and over 200 species of birds. Also nearby is the Udawalawe National Park, famous for its hundreds of elephants.
A quick trip from Mattala takes travellers to some of the most famed beaches in Sri Lanka. Surfers from around the world travel to Arugam Bay on the east coast to ride its legendary waves and to take part in international competitions. The less adventurous can always head further north to the untouched beaches of Trincomalee, where lazing under the sun and snorkelling is a way of life. As if that wasn't enough, a journey along the southern coast takes the traveller to even more beaches.
Mattala also provides a quick getaway to the mountains of Sri Lanka. Nuwara Eliya, nestled among lush tea plantations and valleys, is a perennial favourite. Nearby is the hill city of Kandy, the last kingdom of Sri Lanka before its fall to the British. Today, it is famous for the golden-roofed Temple of the Tooth, which houses a sacred relic of the Lord Buddha. Key features of any trip to these misty mountains are the many tea plantations, gushing waterfalls, botanical gardens in bloom and unspoiled nature that define the landscape.
Besides fuelling Sri Lanka's tourism industry, Mattala is also a key driver of economic prosperity in the largely impoverished heartland of the country.
The Hambantota district has been one of the key focuses of this programme. The region has seen the construction of a deepwater port in Magampura, just 20km from Mattala. The port is also just 10nm from one of the world's busiest shipping routes connecting the West with the Far East.
The Magampura Sea Port, coupled with the new airport, will play a key role in transforming the region into a logistics and sea-air trans-shipment hub, and also provides a boost to upcoming industrial and manufacturing parks. A $550-million tax-free zone is also being set up as part of the port area and has attracted interest from multinational companies. The port's close proximity to MRIA also enables fly-cruise services for tourists. Lucrative investment opportunities are also available for light and clean industries in the free zone that is being set up inside the airport.
Hambantota recently witnessed the unveiling of a 35,000-seat international cricket stadium and sports complex, which hosted some of the matches during the 2011 Cricket World Cup. There is also a state-of-the-art international convention centre targeting meetings, incentives, conferences and events (MICE) tourism. Also under construction are a range of international hotels by chains such as Shangri-La, which are due to open by 2015. Construction is also underway on a cutting-edge IT park for tech firms from around the world; an oil refinery and chemical engineering plants are also being developed.
The Sri Lankan Government has also ensured that Hambantota is well connected to the rest of the country, especially the capital of Colombo. The Southern Expressway, which was opened last year, will be extended all the way to Hambantota, enabling travellers and cargo to move between the two cities within a couple of hours.
Mattala Airport has already attracted international carriers such as Air Arabia and Flydubai, while other airlines are showing growing interest. Naturally, among the first to take off from MRIA was the country's national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines.
The launch of MRIA is not just symbolic of a boom currently being experienced by Hambantota - it is also further evidence that the island nation of Sri Lanka is cementing its position as a global tourist attraction.
MRIA also has a great potential to become a strategic en-route alternate aerodrome for aircraft including A380s on long-haul oceanic flights such as those between the Middle East and Australia whose Air Routes traverse very close to it.
The airport also offers its presence as an ETOPS (extended-range twin-engine operational performance standards) alternative, enabling airlines to operate twin-engine aircraft along oceanic air routes across the Indian Ocean, thus allowing more flexibility in the use of their aircraft fleet.