June 04, 2010 (LBO) - Sri Lanka and India should fully liberalize air services within the two countries, further strengthen links between them and set an example to South Asia, the head of the island's state-run national carrier said.
"The time has come to a fully liberalize aviation in the region, which will be an example in the pursuit of true intra-regional trade," SriLankan Airlines chairman Nishanta Wickremasinghe told a business forum in Colombo.
"From the airline's point of view I would unhesitatingly urge India to take that opportunity to fully liberalize air services to serve as a regional model."
He was speaking at a business forum held with the India International Film Awards in Colombo.
Wickremasinghe said Sri Lanka had an aviation policy of liberalizing on the basis of reciprocity.
"Far reaching and timely decisions by Sri Lanka and India to liberalize (are needed)," he said.
"It could well serve as a model for other SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation) countries."
Capacity on the India-Lanka sector was tight until 2001 with India's state-airline being unable to buy new aircraft. Sri Lanka then abolished visas for Indians worsening the shortage.
India then allowed private airlines to fly to Colombo and other South Asian countries.
Sri Lankan Airlines even now flies more than 50 times a week to India down from 100 before the economic downturn, and is the top foreign carrier to the country.
Wickremasinghe said India's land mass was more than 50 times that of Sri Lanka. India had a population of over a billion people compared to 20 million in the case of Sri Lanka which showed that "asymmetry of land has no bearing" on what could be achieved.
India was now the top source of visitors to Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka was among the top ten to India, he said.
Sri Lanka was hoping to attract more than 2.5 million tourists by 1016 with 500,000 from India.
Wickremasinghe said the India-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement (ILFTA) signed ten years ago had expanded economic links between the people of the two countries.
"ILFATA was a sound foundation for trade," he said. "Both countries have recognized that there are many more opportunities.
"Hence Sri Lanka and India are in the final stages of negotiations on a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA) which will encompass services."
He said further liberalization of air services would enhance capacity for more trade and tourist traffic.
The signing of CEPA has been stalled due to protectionist protests. Recently a group of businessmen went to President Mahinda Rajapaksa's residence to request him to halt the signing of the deal.
Wickremasinghe is Mahinda Rajapaksa's brother-in-law.
He said SriLankan had helped market India and brought tourists to the country. The airline had also signed a deal with the Kerala tourism authority for joint promotions.
Wickremasinghe said he was watching with keen interest the upgrading of Indian airport infrastructure.
Sri Lanka wanted to transform the island into a shipping, aviation and knowledge hub serving as a link between the East and the West.
It was modernising and expanding its main airport to increase capacity, was also developing an airport in Mattala in the South and upgrading 14 internal domestic airports.