Hardly anybody goes to Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (HRI) because they have a flight. No, the air transport hub is currently a daily flight or two away from being completely defunct, and the people who do go there tend to be tourists making a side trip from the nearby wildlife parks to see the stunning, fully modern airport in the middle of the jungle for themselves.
I arrived at HRI, which is located in Sri Lanka’s southern Hambantota district, in the mid-morning to find a group of tourists huddle together in front of its passenger terminal. I asked them why they wanted to visit an empty airport.
“It is a really beautiful building,” one of them told me matter-of-factly.
This airport is a landmark, a sign of progress in this region of Sri Lanka, which is located in a forested area a 250 kilometer drive from Colombo. The airport has a 12,000 square meter terminal building, 12 check-in counters, two gates, a runway long enough to handle the largest commercial jets, and capacity for one million passengers per year.
The entrance corridor of Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. Image: Wade Shepard.
The entrance corridor of Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. Image: Wade Shepard

Other than that, everything looked as an airport should: the information booth was fully staffed with three sharply dressed young women, security guards were at their posts, cleaners were scrubbing the floor, the souvenir shops glistened, and a small cafeteria had a cook and a cashier dutifully at work. This airport was fully in service, despite the lack of a viable reason for it to be.
I paid the negligible cost of admission and walked in through the main entrance. A great hall, naturally brightened by massive windows, led me to a giant statue of Guan Yin, the bodhisattva of compassion, which sits right at the heart of the terminal. As I walked, my footsteps echoed through the building. There were few other sounds — no flight announcements over the PA, no passengers yakking on their cellphones, no taxi drivers trying to solicit a fare.

high-ceilinged corridors were absent of any visitors, except for myself.

The rise of Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport


A Sri Lankan Budhist monk takes pictures of an unseen Sri Lankan airlines Airbus A-340 which transported President Mahinda Rajapakse who became the first passenger to go through the facility at the new Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Mattala, in the southeast of the island on March 18, 2013. 

The story as to how this airport rose and fell is a dive into a quagmire of national politics, geopolitical maneuvering, raw corruption, and the hunger of China to invest in massive infrastructure projects along what has subsequently been dubbed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.