Jan 17 (BBC) "An economic game changer" is how officials describe Colombo Port City, a shiny metropolis soaring out of the water along the Sri Lankan capital’s seafront.
Next to Colombo’s leafy business district, the huge expanse of sand reclaimed from the sea is being transformed into a high-tech city which will host an offshore international financial centre, residential areas and a marina - prompting comparisons with Dubai, Monaco or Hong Kong.
"This reclaimed land gives Sri Lanka a chance to redraw the map and to build a city of world class proportions and functionality - and compete with Dubai or Singapore," Saliya Wickramasuriya, a member of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, told the BBC.
But critics question how much of an economic game changer it will really be for Sri Lanka.
For a start, in order to reclaim the 665 acres (2.6 sq km) of new land, the country needed the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) to invest $1.4bn. In return, the firm has been given 43% of it on a 99-year lease.
After several years of dredging, construction activity is gaining momentum and the new city is taking shape.
Huge cranes supervised by Chinese engineers are moving concrete slabs, while earth movers fill trucks with tonnes of sand. A river passing through the reclaimed land has already been dredged, allowing access for small boats and yachts.
Officials estimate it will take about 25 years to complete the project, the first of its kind in South Asia.
Sri Lanka says the land under its control and the area given to the Chinese will be leased to multinational firms, banks and other companies. The government may also charge a levy on their revenue.
About 80,000 people are expected to live in the new city, which will offer tax holidays for those who invest and do business there. All transactions in the special economic zone, including salaries, will be in US dollars.
The Port City project was officially unveiled during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Colombo in 2014, a year after he launched his Belt and Road Initiative - an ambitious plan to build road, rail and maritime infrastructure links across Asia and Europe to boost trade.
Sri Lanka turned to China for financial help to rebuild after a long war with Tamil separatists ended in 2009. Western nations had raised concerns over human rights abuses.