The Report Company: President Rajapaksa has highlighted the country’s ports as one of the key areas for development in making Sri Lanka an international hub. You’re the youngest chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, how does your responsibility and role in the country’s development make you feel?

Priyath Wickrama: I have worked for the ports authority for 11 years. I joined as a mechanical engineer and then I graduated up to chairman level. It’s a great honour for me, as it’s the first time someone from outside of Colombo has been given this opportunity.

Unfortunately, I took over the chairmanship when the entire world was going down with the crisis. The shipping sector in particular was really suffering, so this was an extra challenge, but we managed. We never did any labour force reduction and we went ahead with all our expansion projects at that time. The task I have is very challenging as the President has given us a timeframe to achieve certain goals, but I’m proud to say that we have done all the necessary work without any delays within the given timeframe and with the resources that we had. I’m also handling the Hambantota port project, which is my baby.

TRC: The expansion of the Port of Colombo is one of the largest public-private partnership deals in the country. Tell us a little bit about the current status of the project and the impact it will have on trade and commerce?

PW: Touching on the existing port first, we have a 4.5 million annual container handling capacity in port of Colombo and we are reaching that capacity. Last year we handled about 4.4m containers. To avoid congestion, we decided to expand the current capacity until we build the new terminal.

As a result, in 2010 we were the world’s largest container handling equipment buyer, and we managed to increase our capacity to 5.2m, so now we have certain breathing space until we get the terminal.

After that, we took a decision to have another interim terminal facility at this new project. This is one of the world’s largest projects – the breakwater alone cost us about $420m. We then went ahead with the terminal tender. It took a long time to find a partner due to the global economic situation. In the end we got only one offer which took a long time to finalise.

We also decided to construct our own 400 metre berth at the new terminal as now the shipping industry is growing, bigger will be there in operation very soon. Next year we’ll have 18,000 – 20,000 TEU ships, very large ships. In Colombo port we have a maximum depth of 15 metres, whereas these ships require a depth of at least 16 metres. At the new terminal we have a minimum depth of 18 metres so we can easily handle any of the world’s largest ships. That new terminal will be operational from April 2013.

This private sector investment is one of the largest PPP projects in Sri Lanka. It is a little bit ahead of schedule, and we think we can complete that project by the end of next year. That means that by the end of 2013 we’ll have an almost 1,000 metre long berth, which is something that you can’t find in this part of the world. Any container carrier in the world can be handled at our new port, which will have the latest modern technology. This will definitely bring a lot of revenue, investment and employment opportunities to Sri Lanka.

TRC: The new port development at Hambantota is important not only for positioning Sri Lanka as a hub but also for the amount of development it will bring to the country. What is the plan behind this and how will this port complement the current port in Colombo?

PW: Colombo will look after the entire container business until that reaches its maximum capacity. What Hambantota is going to do is completely different. It will be a logistics and manufacturing centre, so we’ll have a lot of generated cargo within the port to handle through that port.

It’s going to be a free port, like Singapore, so there will be facilities available there without any additional charges other than port charges. It will cater for the entire region without any difficulty. If you look at Dubai and Singapore, from Dubai you can only reach India’s west coast and from Singapore you can only reach the east coast, but if you want to reach both coasts, this is the ideal location.

We are also waiting until we get the license to import oil and then we will start bunkering at Hambantota. We will convert it into a service centre so as well as bunkering it will provide water, crew change facilities, food and all other ship handling services as well as a large dockyard. It’s going to be a one stop shop.

We have selected 11 investors who will invest more than $800m in Hambantota, who will start construction work by May 2012.

The committed private sector investment we have at this point including Colombo is more than $2.2bn. Because of that we’re going ahead with a second request for proposals for Hambantota, so we are expecting more investment.

Our target is to reach $5bn FDI by 2015, only through the port sector.

TRC: What are your key strategies to attract investment? How do you promote these opportunities?

PW: The largest advantage we have is the market. South Asian countries represent more than 22% of the world’s population. The facilities we provide in Hambantota are on par with any other facility in the world. As it’s a free port, there is no tax involvement and no hassle. People come and invest in that port without any difficulty and we give a lot of rebates for production and port handling. We are investing $1.5bn to build Hambantota port, which is the single largest investment project in the country.

TRC: What would you like potential investors to understand about Sri Lanka?

PW: Because of misleading information in the media, European and British investors do not know anything about the opportunities here. That’s the disadvantage they have, as we currently have a lot of investment opportunities here and we’ve got investors from India, Pakistan, Singapore, Australia and China, but only one investor from Europe.c

Within the next ten years Sri Lanka will play a big role in the world, so now is the time to invest here.

We’re going to have a second request for proposals, and there are opportunities including assembling, manufacturing, processing, packing, storing, warehousing, bulk handling and liquid handling in Hambantota.

In Colombo, we are going to have a big property development project. We’re going to fill 500 acres from the breakwater up to Galle Face Green. We’ll have a golf course and a formula one race track which will be completed by the end of 2014. We’ll have a lot of hotels, shopping malls and various other investment opportunities in that small piece of land.

TRC: What do you see as Sri Lanka’s competitive advantage, compared to other countries in the region?

PW: From Sri Lanka you can go to Africa, the Indian subcontinent and everywhere. We were gifted with our location. We have a lot of evidence to prove that we have been the largest trading partner in this part of the world 2,000 years ago. We were the best maritime nation at that time, so we want to close the circle and get back to where we were.

TRC: What are your projections for the future?

PW: The contribution from the ports sector to the national GDP is about 10%. Our target is to reach 40%. We have to develop the infrastructure first, then investments will come. Our target is to develop Sri Lanka using our ports sector and with the collaboration of the aviation sector.

TRC: What would be your message to British investors?

PW: I want people to come and see my infrastructure. I can tell you many things, you can publish many photographs, but that will not give the proper message. People must come and see the infrastructure. Only then will they understand how big, how important this is.