After years of war, Sri Lanka's first expressway, from the national capital to a historic tourist center in the south, is hastening the country's return to normality through a boom in business.

By the numbers

30 km
length of the highway funded by ADB
poverty rate in Southern Province, in 1999
GDP growth rate in southern region, 5 years after project completion (projected)
GDP growth rate in southern region without project (projected)

Source: Report and Recommendation to the President (1999).

Galle, Sri Lanka - In business for over 2 decades, Ranjan Thambawita, 44, has seen a recent improvement in his sales and income since he began rerouting his seafood cargo via inland roads that connect with the Southern Expressway.

In the past, the pre-dawn catch of fish could take traders nearly a day to clean and transport from Negombo, in the Western Province, to Galle, in the Southern Province. After all, it was a journey that included around 5 hours of stressful driving along a busy and narrow two-lane highway.

"The expressway has cut down my travel time, allowing me to offer a wide range of fish to our key customers in the south within a short time."

- Ranjan Thambawita, fish trader

Since November 2011, a new expressway linking Colombo to Galle has trimmed the journey from west to south to around 3 hours, enabling fresh farm produce and seafood to reach the island's south quickly and easily.

"The expressway has cut down my travel time, allowing me to offer a wide range of fish to our key customers in the south within a short time," says the father of three as he unloads his day's supplies at the up-market Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel in Galle.

Like Thambawita, vegetable trader Piyal Chandrasiri, 47, uses the expressway to transport a range of fresh produce to hotels and small traders in Galle.

"Getting fresh goods to Galle was a challenge over the years, due to the congested roads ... It took us a lot of time and money to transport them from wholesale suppliers," says the handlebar-mustached Chandrasiri.

Transport express

Cutting travel time and improving trade and commerce between Colombo and the south were the prime motivations behind the Southern Transport Development Project, which has led to the building of the Southern Expressway. The 29-km southern section of the highway was funded by ADB - totaling $180 million - while the northern 66-km stretch was funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with additional funds from the Government of Sri Lanka.

"The expressway trims the 3-hour journey between Colombo and Galle to just 1 hour. That was the biggest selling point for us when we were pushing the project and explaining to villagers why we had to acquire land and relocate houses," says BVDN Chandrasiri, project director.

"As a civil engineer, it's a dream come true to bring to life the first highway project for Sri Lanka," he says, adding that the expressway is now being extended by another 35 km from Galle to Matara with assistance from the Export-Import Bank of China. Due for completion at the end of 2013, the Galle-Matara leg will trim the current 1-hour journey to just 15 minutes.

Plans are also afoot to extend the Southern Expressway to Hambantota, connecting to Mattala International Airport, currently under construction in Sri Lanka's deep south.

Jobs and livelihoods

Referred to as "E01," the expressway has created jobs in the south, and is also generating independent business livelihoods, particularly for those living around the seven interchanges.

Over 9,000 vehicles - mostly cars - ply the expressway each day, netting toll fees of around SLRs2.5 million ($19,000). A dedicated bus service also travels the expressway.

At the half-way point, in Welipanna, state-run Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation has been tasked with building a rest area with a minimart, fuel station, and food outlets.

"The benefits of the expressway keep growing each day," says TK Ranatunga, director of the expressway operations, maintenance and management unit. "We have seen land prices virtually double as more companies move closer to the expressway to move finished goods quickly to Colombo."

Others like real estate agent Tharaka Prasad are making a tidy profit selling land near the interchanges at premiums for housing and industrial projects.

Prasad has priced a 470-perch (1.2-hectare) abandoned rubber estate in Kahathuduwa (bordering an interchange) for SLRs200,000 ($1,500) a perch in 2012. Its first owner bought it for SLRs110,000 ($840) a perch in 2007.

"The back of the land borders the expressway, while the front of the property is close to the Kahathuduwa entry point. The location puts a premium on the land," says Prasad.

Tourism rebound

The expressway has also been a boon for the hospitality trade in Galle. A historical city, it was nearly devastated by the 2004 Asian tsunami, which killed some 31,000 people in Sri Lanka. After a long time, hoteliers, tour operators, staff and hotel suppliers have been able to again cash in on an influx of holidaymakers - just like before when the city was frequented by the Dutch and the British.

At the Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel, banquet sales have soared by around 30%, while weekend buffet volumes are up around 45%, according to the executive chef, Nihal Senanayake. A swank property overlooking the Indian Ocean, the Jetwing Lighthouse is fully booked on long, holiday weekends.

"Bookings for events are up. Business is doing very well since the expressway opened."

- Eshan Pathirana, assistant manager, Jetwing Lighthouse Hotel in Galle

"Lots of locals patronize our hotel, either for a meal or an overnight stay. Bookings for events are up. Business is doing very well since the expressway opened," says Eshan Pathirana, Jetwing assistant manager.

His sentiments are echoed by other hoteliers, and small tourist-related businesses - including restaurants - in and around the historical attraction of Galle Fort.

Pathirana says an uptick in business has also benefited hotel suppliers such as flower vendors, and suppliers of food, betel leaves, and king coconuts.

"Even tips for staff have increased substantially due to the volume of business," he says.

Have wheels, will drive

In Hambantota, some 120 km from Galle, small businesses offering delivery services for car dealerships are doing steady business, thanks to the expressway. In May 2012, the Government of Sri Lanka mandated vehicle shipments be shifted from the main port of Colombo to the newly opened, Hambantota Port, funded by the People's Republic of China (close to a new international airport still under construction). This is creating new opportunities ranging from storage to transport for logistics operations.

Open-bed trucks are now being used by car traders, to transport single vehicles to Colombo via the expressway.

"The Southern Expressway has cut an 8-hour road journey to 4 hours from Hambantota. It has given us a fresh source of income," says truck driver, Sujith Prasanna. "I hope the government will build more expressways to shorten travel time between key cities."

Sri Lanka has commenced work on its second expressway. It will link Colombo to what is currently the nation's sole international airport in Katunayake. The government is also building a road network that will connect key towns to the first and second expressways.

"I wish the highway had been built about 20 years ago," says fish trader Thambawita. "Business would have been much better and we would have had more time to pursue other activities."