MATTALA (AFP) - Sri Lanka's president opened the country's second international airport on Monday, intended to help spur a new economic hub and act as a gateway to the island's southeast.
The Sharjah-based low-cost carrier Air Arabia on Monday became the first foreign airline to start scheduled services out of Mattala Rajapakse International Airport, about 270 kilometres (168 miles) south of the capital Colombo by road.
Built with funding from China's Export-Import Bank, the new US$206 million (S$325 million) facility in Hambantota district can accommodate the Airbus A380, the biggest airliner in service, and is surrounded by a free-trade zone.
Its business is geared towards transporting migrant workers from Sri Lanka to the Middle East, but national carrier Sri Lankan airlines will bring in tourists interested in the nearby wildlife sanctuaries of Yala, Udawalawe and Bundala.
Fly Dubai, the low-cost carrier of Emirates, will begin scheduled services next month.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, whose regime has strained relations with the West, has turned to China for funding for a range of infrastructure projects including roads and a deep-sea port in Hambantota, his home constituency.
"We have been criticised for taking loans to build this airport," Mr Rajapakse said at an inauguration ceremony. "The loan was not for consumption, but to build infrastructure. We will build more power stations, highways and ports."
Tourism has taken off in Sri Lanka since the end, in May 2009, of decades of fighting, when government forces crushed the separatist Tamil Tiger movement in a campaign dogged by allegations of war crimes.
The number of tourists visiting Sri Lanka exceeded one million in 2012, marking a 17.5 per cent increase over 2011, while income from the sector jumped 25 per cent to US$830 million last year, official figures show.