The experience of arriving at Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka is just like most other airports around the world. Except for one thing: the huge number of duty-free stores selling bulky whitegoods and electronics.
In most countries, airport duty-free stores mainly sell things like alcohol, cigarettes, small electronics and perfumes. You know, the kinds of things that are small enough to carry onto the plane with you and pop into the overhead locker. But in Sri Lanka, duty-free is big business – literally!
I recall arriving once in Colombo around 2am. Outside of the airport, most Sri Lankans would have been fast asleep. But the airport’s many duty-free stores were doing a roaring trade. People were lining up to buy everything from fridges to televisions, washing machines, ovens and vacuum cleaners.
Obviously, carrying a (literal) kitchen sink onto a plane is not that practical. So, large whitegoods are not sold at the duty-free stores in the airport’s departures area. But there are dozens of whitegoods and electronics retailers in the international arrivals section of Bandaranaike International Airport, located after clearing passport control and before customs.
In fact, the arrivals area at Colombo’s airport has 36 duty-free stores. Of these, 34 shops mainly sell electronics, whitegoods or both. It’s a sight to behold as you walk down the long hallway towards the baggage carousel!
So, why do Sri Lankans buy so many whitegoods and electronics from airport duty-free stores? Well, the answer is in the question: they’re duty and tax free. For Sri Lankans, the prices available on high-value items are much lower at the airport than elsewhere in Sri Lanka, mainly due to high taxes on items like electronic goods. In fact, the items are so much cheaper at the airport that it’s worth the hassle of having to wheel a fridge through the airport’s baggage claim area and customs.
Many of the airport duty-free stores also allow Sri Lankans to pre-order their preferred products and pick them up when they land in Colombo.
To be clear, nobody is expecting a foreign tourist to buy a microwave at the start of their Sri Lankan holiday. In fact, foreigners are only entitled to a duty-free allowance on arrival into Sri Lanka for alcohol and small quantities of souvenirs or perfume.
But returning Sri Lankan residents are also entitled to a duty-free allowance for other personal purchases made on arrival at the airport, depending on the amount of time spent abroad. Sri Lankans who have been overseas for less than 90 days can only buy USD187.50 worth of tax-free goods, but those who spent 3-12 months overseas can spend up to USD625 tax-free. Sri Lankans returning after more than a year overseas have an even higher USD1,750 allowance.