A fishing town in one of the most underdeveloped regions in Sri Lanka is taking a leaf out of the book of Chinaâ€™s Shenzhen, in Guangdong province. The town is looking to the development model used at a port in the Chinese city to help fuel economic growth in Sri Lanka.
Hambantota is on Sri Lankaâ€™s south coast. A few years ago the south-west area of the town was merely jungle. Wooden fishing boats lay stranded on the beach, and fishermen would often see snakes, elephants and peacocks in the area, said Yuri Kannangara, a local.
Mr Kannangara, 51, has worked in the shipping industry for 20 years. But he has spent much of that time away from his loved ones, working in South African ports as a mechanic. Job prospects and salaries there are more attractive, which is important because he has a family of five to support.
Hambantota, his home town, is within 12 miles of one of the worldâ€™s busiest shipping lanes, through which 200 to 300 vessels daily carry two-thirds of global energy products and half of all containerised cargo.
But the townâ€™s port remained neglected for decades, and Hambantota grew very slowly because of a lack of industry and basic infrastructure, not to mention a modern commercial port.
Things have changed in just a year. In July last year, Sri Lanka and China signed a joint venture agreement to begin operations at Hambantota Port. China Merchants Group and Sri Lankaâ€™s Ports Authority agreed to jointly operate the port for 99 years through Hambantota International Port Group and Hambantota International Port Services.
Mr Kannangara is now a deputy general manager at the bustling port, in charge of a department that ensures all the fast-developing facilityâ€™s machinery function well. But during the initial phase of the co-operation project, many observers expressed doubts, saying it appeared too difficult and it was not necessary to build an international port in such a poor area.
Feng Ming, a deputy general manager of operations at Hambantota Port, said that in the past the ships used by carmakers in East Asia and India had to call at Colombo to refuel or unload vehicles for other destinations. However, with space now limited at that port, efficiency was poor.
Ships carrying motor vehicles often need to anchor for 10 days off the Port of Colombo to await vacant berths, which in turn increased the price of imported vehicles. A report by the Sri Lanka Port Authority in 2009 said Colombo handled 4,973 transshipped vehicles, but the number fell to 2,455 the following year.
By 2011, just 993 vehicles were handled at the port. In 2005 constructing a new port and connecting it to Colombo via a planned industrial belt was given priority in Sri Lankaâ€™s â€śMahinda vision for the future,â€ť proposed by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa.
It aims to transform Sri Lanka into â€śa hub for sea transport, aviation, business, energy and knowledgeâ€ť. Mr Rajapaksa believed Sri Lanka needed a new economic growth engine, and Hambantota Port, close to the worldâ€™s busiest shipping lanes, proved to be a good option.
â€śBut Sri Lanka has a very weak industrial base, so thereâ€™s little internal demand,â€ť Mr Feng said, talking of the challenges. â€śWe are developing this port very slowly but steadily.â€ť
Mr Feng said the model HIPG has adopted to develop Hambantota is the â€śport-park-cityâ€ť model, in which an industrial park and a city are built after a port. This model has catapulted the once-backward Chinese fishing port of Shekou in Shenzhen into a modern city.
The joint venture will set up an industrial zone at the port. It is hoped that the zone will act as an engine to drive economic development in the region and gradually attract investors worldwide.
In the first half of this year, the joint venture between China and Sri Lanka, which came into force in December, attracted 142 ships to berth at its docks, more than the number of vessels the Port of Hambantota handled in the whole of last year.
Tissa Wickramasinghe, HIPGâ€™s chief operations officer, said carmakers from Japan, South Korea and India have begun transshipping increasing numbers of vehicles through Hambantota, attracted by its convenient location, deep-water berths and the availability of storage space.
Since December more than 55,959 cars have been transshipped through Hambantota.
â€śAlso, in less than a year, the value of land in the Hambantota area has increased three or four times, wages have tripled and rents have doubled,â€ť Mr Wickramasinghe said.
Parakrama Dissanayake, chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority, said: â€śYou have one of the worldâ€™s most experienced companies running the port.â€ť
Many countries together with international contractors and financial institutions competed in winning the contract to build Hambantota Port, he said, but China Merchant Group offered the best proposal. This did not take into account just building a port, but also considered how the port could be used to drive regional development.
In 1872, Li Hongzhang, a minister in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) who tried to modernise China, recruited Zhu Qiâ€™Ang, who had handled shipping for many years, to discuss testing a new type of port authority in China.
The China Merchants Steamship Navigation Company, established in Shanghai, became the predecessor of China Merchant Group. At that time Li and his company were struggling to break colonisersâ€™ monopoly on Yangtze River inland shipping.
Today CMG is one of the worldâ€™s largest and most competitive transport and aviation companies. It has built ports and highways in various countries to boost international connectivity, but the company believes that connectivity between people sometimes outweighs its huge construction programmes.
At CICT, a subsidiary of CMG that builds and operates the South Container Terminal at the Port of Colombo, Chinese and Sri Lankan employees call each other â€śbrotherâ€ť.
Whenever CICT â€™s chief executive officer Huang Peng receives a phone call from a Sri Lankan colleague, he always starts the conversation with â€śHello, my brotherâ€ť. His mantra became a buzzword within the company, and soon many started to imitate Mr Huangâ€™s style of greeting.
Mr Huangâ€™s office door is always open, and as chief executive he is happy to deal with his Sri Lankan employeesâ€™ requests and inquiries. â€śSome are about meals at work and salaries, some others are about family and love issues. But Iâ€™m happy to help them solve all types of issues,â€ť Mr Huang said.
CICT employees 1,500 people, of whom more than 1,480 are Sri Lankan. During the 35-year contract, CICT expects to add more than $2 billion (ÂŁ1.56 billion) in revenue to the Sri Lankan economy, resulting in 5,000 new jobs.
For Thusitha George, the operations manager at CICT, his â€śbest brotherâ€ť is Zhu Mingwei. Mr Zhu, who works in the technical department, often helps Mr George solve complex technical problems in his work. As a local employee, Mr George likes to invite his Chinese colleagues to try Sri Lankan black tea after work.
The port was recently ranked the 13th best-connected port in the world by Drewry Port Connectivity Index, a global shipping analyst. It also won the Best Container Terminal in Asia award in the Under 4 million TEUs (twenty foot equivalent units) category at the Asian Freight, Logistics and Supply Chain Awards for two consecutive years, which Mr Huang said was the result of the joint efforts by Chinese and Sri Lankan employees.
Ten years ago the Port of Colombo was on the brink of bankruptcy, due to civil war and the global financial crisis. When the civil war ended in 2009, Sri Lanka began to revitalise its economy and rebuild its damaged port business. But then the global financial crisis devastated the global port industry.
Hu Jianhua, vice-president of CMG, said everyone in the company was concerned that the sluggish international economic and trade situation would damage the port industry after the financial crisis. But he believed the financial crisis was only cyclical.
He said that because of the crisis it was necessary for China to help Sri Lanka rebuild its economy. His assessment proved to be correct. In 2010, the crisis eased and several major international port giants proposed better offers to the Sri Lankan government, hoping to re-tender for the project.
â€śBut the Sri Lankan government still insisted in handing over the project to China,â€ť Mr Hu said. He added that there were two reasons for this: â€śFirst, our bidding process is legally compliant, and the bid proposal was impeccable and transparent. Second, Sri Lanka respects the spirit of contract, which also proved that we had chosen the right partner to work with.â€ť
Soon, the ancient Port of Colombo began to revive. Under the joint operation between China and Sri Lanka, container throughput at the port increased from 4.18 million TEUs to 5.74 million TEUs between 2012 and 2016.
This growth was fuelled by CICT. In 2014 the port became the fastest-growing in the world as its throughput increased by 14 per cent.
In 2015 this grew by 7 per cent, at a time when the global shipping market was in a downturn. In 2016 CICTâ€™s throughput reached 2.02 million TEUs, and now the century-old port has regained its position as one of the busiest in the region.