Sri Lanka to open international airport in wildlife paradise

MATTALA (AFP) - Sri Lanka is set to open later this month a Chinese-built international airport surrounded by wildlife sanctuaries with the aim of boosting tourism, an official said.

Authorities want to leverage the exotic flora and fauna in the US$209 million (S$261 million) airport's neighbourhood to attract holidaymakers.

Travellers will be offered the "experience of being able to get up close and feed wild baby elephants," the state-run airport chairman Prasanna Wickremasuriya said.

The nearby Udawalawe wildlife sanctuary where authorities maintain a transit home for orphaned baby elephants is already a popular attraction for tourists who pay a fee to feed bottle milk to baby jumbos.

The airport's opening is planned for March 18.

Wickremasuriya told reporters another US$100 million would be spent to increase the number of aircraft parking bays to 14 from the current 10.

China's Export Import bank funded the project and provided expertise as in the case of a US$1.5 billion sea port opened for commercial shipping last year.

Both the port and the airport are in Hambantota district, the constituency of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has pledged to turn the region into a new commercial capital of the nation of 20 million people.

New Delhi government officials have expressed fears that Hambantota is part of a Chinese policy to throw a "string of pearls" - or a circle of influence - around South Asia's nuclear-armed regional power India.

However, Sri Lanka insists its interests are purely commercial and says it will not allow any foreign power to get a foothold in its ports and airports.

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