Sri Lanka counts on World Cup to boost image

Published: Friday, April 27, 2007, 23:53 [IST]
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Colombo:Sri Lanka is banking on the publicity from the cricket World Cup to attract foreign investment and tourism to the South Asian island nation better known for its separatist conflict.

As the home team prepares for the final clash with Australia on Saturday, the Caribbean event has offered an unexpected windfall for promoters battling a barrage of negative publicity amid an escalation of violence.

The island's tourism authority moved swiftly to cash in on the international media exposure the players and the spectators were getting, drafting in students to grab the attention of television crews and the international press in the Caribbean.

The students held traditional masks, balloons and placards describing bleached-haired Lasith Malinga as a "lad like no other" and Sanath Jayasuriya a "master blaster like no other," a play on Sri Lanka's "a land like no other" tourism slogan.

"The World Cup exposure is simply priceless for the country's image. The team's success has generated enormous awareness. It's a shot in the arm for us," Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Renton de Alwis said.

De Alwis is hoping the world's media, usually preoccupied with the island's 35-year-old conflict with the Tamil Tigers, will provide some positive coverage of Sri Lanka.

The national team consists of players from minority Tamil and Muslim communities, and has been held up as an example of ethnic harmony in a country where a separatist war has claimed more than 60,000 lives since 1972.

"The international focus that cricket has, and the strong public support, is positive and good for the country's image," says Dilhan Fernando, a director of the team's co-sponsor, Dilmah tea.

The players are also funded by MAS, Sri Lanka's largest exporter of exotic lingerie, part of the island's 2.5-billion-dollar garment industry.

Cricket is one of the few things that cuts through political and ethnic lines, and is hugely popular among Sri Lankans.

Even the Tamil Tigers are known to back the Sri Lankan team.

Ajith Fernando, chief executive of a privately held investment bank, Capital Alliance, said the resulting feel-good factor could be used to attract investment.

"Whether we win or lose, there have been humongous news reports on us, particularly showing that we are known not just for terrorism," said Fernando. "We could never afford to pay and get that publicity."

Sri Lanka is hoping to attract a billion dollars in foreign investment this year after securing 600 million dollars in 2006, and analysts expect investment promotion authorities will use the event to raise the country's profile.

Backing the World Cup has also already made good business sense for local companies.

The national broadcaster is believed to have made more than double the amount it spent to secure the domestic broadcast rights from selling air time at a premium.

A 30-second advertising spot is now selling at 150,000 rupees (1,400 dollars) after Sri Lanka booked a berth in the semi-finals last week, a marketing official said.

The winning captain at Saturday's showdown will walk away with more than two million dollars in prize money and the runner up will pocket a million dollars.

In addition to the prize money other payments associated with the tournament will amount to about 10 million dollars.

If all else fails, the fat tournament cheque should breath some life into Sri Lanka's sagging rupee, which has lost about five percent of its value against the dollar in the past year.


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