The sound was deafening. It was the unmistakable roar of fighter jets overhead. Noting my surprise, the person I was meeting explained that it was just a rehearsal for the next day’s Victory Parade to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s 25-year civil war.
In just four short years, Sri Lanka has begun to reap the fruits of peace. By diverting resources that were previously spent on its military toward things like infrastructure, tourism and education, its economy has experienced solid growth. As our small car sat in traffic on the main road leading to the Colombo airport, my driver told me about the newly planned highway scheduled to open later this year. The Colombo-Katunayake Expressway, he said, would reduce my 1.5-hour trip to about 20 minutes. More importantly, I thought, we wouldn’t be driven off the road by rickshaws referred to locally as “tuk-tuks.”
Besides transportation infrastructure, the government is focusing on tourism. With coconut trees lining its blue waters, Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in Asia. Others seem to have noticed as well. Last year, the number of overseas visitors grew by 17% to 1 million, translating into revenues of US$1 billion. But even with this spike in visitors, Sri Lanka still has the potential for further growth when compared to the region’s more popular and better-established tourist draws like Thailand, which saw 22 million visitors over the same period. Indeed, to prepare for this growth, hotels are sprouting like beanstalks. Many high-end hotel chains have recently broken ground in the country and are scheduled to open within the next few years.
Last, but certainly not least, the government is very focused on building its human capital. Currently, only 17% of the 120,000 eligible students actually gain entrance to a university. As a result, about 10% of them leave Sri Lanka to attend universities abroad. In order to retain and grow its top talent, the government is looking to grow both its public and private universities and is seeking strategic foreign direct investments in education.
As I watched the green army helicopters and fighter jets fly overhead during the Victory Parade, I couldn’t help but relegate its civil war to the history books and instead focus on the upward growth arc of this tropical island nation.
© Matthews Asia