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Sri Lanka leader launches country's 2nd international airport

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa commissioned the country’s second international airport on Monday, part of the island’s bid to remake itself as a tourist destination after the end of a bitter civil war.

Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, named after the president, was officially opened in his native district of Hambantota, 165 kilometres (102 miles) southeast of the capital, Colombo.

After end of the war in 2009, Rajapaksa’s government has invested heavily in infrastructure development, with special emphasis on his district. The $209 million airport is the third big recent infrastructure project in Hambantota after a seaport and an international cricket stadium. The government plans to promote Hambantota — which is close to a busy sea route — as a “sea air transshipment hub.”

Built with a Chinese loan, the airport has an initial capacity of 1 million passengers a year. It can handle 30,000 aircraft movements and 45,000 metric tons of cargo annually.

The country’s opposition has criticized the construction of both port and airport in Hambantota as a waste of money, saying they are not economically viable. Opposition lawmaker and Tissa Attanayake of the United National Party said the projects were built only to boost the image of Rajapaksa.

Sri Lanka’s main international airport is the Bandaranaike International Airport just outside of Colombo.

Officials say the airport would cater to the growing tourism industry as it is located close to several rich wildlife and bird sanctuaries, heritage sites and also to beaches with year-round sunshine.

Aviation Minister Priyankara Jayaratn said one of the main reasons for build the airport in Hambantota was “the demand from the nation’s leisure sector.”

The government has set a target of wooing 2.6 million tourist arrivals to the country by 2016, up from the 1 million tourists who arrived last year.

The project covers 2.000 hectares and after a second phase it completed, the airport will be able to handle 5 million passengers a year and 150,000 metric tons of cargo. A date for the second phase has not been announced.