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Sri Lanka

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka is a lower middle-income country with a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of about $ 3,682 (according to the Central Banka of Sri Lanka (CBSL) and a population of approximately 22 million in 2020.  The island’s strategic location off the southern coast of India along the main east-west Indian Ocean shipping lanes gives Sri Lanka a regional logistical advantage.

After 30 years of civil war, Sri Lanka is transitioning from a predominantly rural-based economy to a more urbanized economy focused on manufacturing and services.  Sri Lanka’s export economy is dominated by apparel and cash-crop exports, mainly tea, but technology service exports are a significant growth sector.  Prior to the April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday attacks, the tourism industry was rapidly expanding, with Lonely Planet naming Sri Lanka its top travel destination in 2019.  However, the attacks led to a significant decline in tourism that continued into 2020 due to COVID-19 and the government’s related decision to close its main international airport for commercial passenger arrivals in March 2020.  The airport reopened for limited commercial passengers in January 2021, but newly reimposed travel restrictions are resulting in severe contractions for both the tourism and apparel export sectors with potential follow-on impacts in related sectors including services, construction, and agriculture.  Tourism revenue dropped 73 percent year-over-year (YoY) in 2020 while apparel exports dropped 15.6 percent in the same period.  However, official figures for migrant labor remittances, another significant source of foreign exchange, increased to $7.1 billion in 2020 due to the collapse of informal money transfer systems during the pandemic, despite the job losses to Sri Lankan migrant workers, especially in the Middle East.

The administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was elected in November 2019, has largely promoted pro-business positions, including announcing tax benefits for new investments to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).  As outlined in its election manifesto, the Rajapaksa government’s economic goals, include positioning Sri Lanka as an export-oriented economic hub at the center of the Indian Ocean (with government control of strategic assets such as Sri Lankan Airlines), improving trade logistics, attracting export-oriented FDI, and boosting firms’ abilities to compete in global markets.  However, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns brought new economic challenges, forcing the government to adapt policies to the situation on the ground.  In April 2020, the Ministry of Finance restricted imports of luxury and semi-luxury consumer products such as consumer durables, motor vehicles, and the import of certain agricultural products as a means of saving foreign reserves and creating employment in labor intensive agriculture.  With a debt-to-GDP ratio now above 100 percent (of which 60 percent is foreign debt), Sri Lanka is facing a potential liquidity crisis, exacerbated by declining export receipts due to the pandemic.  Exports of goods fell 15.6 percent to $10 billion in 2020, down from $12 billion in 2019.  Exports of services fell roughly 60 percent to $3 billion in 2020 down from $7.5 billion in 2019.

FDI in Sri Lanka has largely been concentrated in tourism, real estate, mixed development projects, ports, and telecommunications in recent years.  With a growing middle class, investors also see opportunities in franchising, information technology services, and light manufacturing for the domestic market. The Board of Investment (BOI) is the primary government authority responsible for investment, particularly foreign investment, aiming to provide “one-stop” services for foreign investors.  The BOI is committed to facilitating FDI and can offer project incentives, arrange utility services, assist in obtaining resident visas for expatriate personnel, and facilitate import and export clearances.  However, Sri Lanka’s import regime is one of the most complex and protectionist in the world.  Sri Lanka ranks 99th out of 190 countries on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index and ranks very poorly in several areas, including contract enforcement (164 out of 190); paying taxes (142/190); registering property (138/190); and obtaining credit (132/190).  Sri Lanka ranks well in protecting minority investors, coming in at 28/190 in 2020.

Sri Lanka’s GDP contracted 3.6 percent to approximately $81 billion in 2020 due to COVID-19, an improvement on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projection for a 4.6 percent contraction.  FDI fell to approximately $550 million in 2020, significantly less than the $1.2 billion in 2019 and $2.3 billion in 2018.  The IMF projects a four percent growth in 2021.

Table 1: Key Metrics and Rankings
Measure Year Index/Rank Website Address
TI Corruption Perceptions Index 2020 94 of 180 http://www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview
World Bank’s Doing Business Report 2020 99 of 190 http://www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings
Global Innovation Index 2020 101 of 131 https://www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator
U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions) 2019 $165 million http://www.bea.gov/international/factsheet/
World Bank GNI per capita 2019 $ 4,020 http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD

1. Openness To, and Restrictions Upon, Foreign Investment

Policies Towards Foreign Direct Investment

Sri Lanka is a constitutional multiparty socialist republic.  In 1978, Sri Lanka began moving away from socialist, protectionist policies and opening up to foreign investment, although changes in government are often accompanied by swings in economic policy.  While the incumbent government largely promoted pro-business positions, including announcing tax benefits for new investments to attract FDI, the government also made interventionist policies to arrest the ongoing economic fallout from COVID-19.  This in turn has altered the field of foreign direct investment towards manufacturing intended to the domestic market.

The BOI (www.investsrilanka.com), an autonomous statutory agency, is the primary government authority responsible for investment, particularly foreign investment, with BOI aiming to provide “one-stop” services for foreign investors.  BOI’s Single Window Investment Facilitation Taskforce (SWIFT) helps facilitate the investment approvals process and works with other agencies in order to expedite the process.  BOI can grant project incentives, arrange utility services, assist in obtaining resident visas for expatriate personnel, and facilitate import and export clearances.

Importers to Sri Lanka face high barriers.  According to a World Bank study, Sri Lanka’s import regime is one of the most complex and protectionist in the world.  U.S. stakeholders have raised concerns the government does not adequately consult with the private sector prior to implementing new taxes or regulations – citing the severe import restrictions imposed as a reaction to COVID-19 as an example.  These restrictions, quickly imposed without consulting the private sector, further complicated Sri Lanka’s import regime.   Similarly, stakeholders have raised concerns that the government does not allow adequate time to implement new regulations.  Additionally, the Sri Lankan government has banned the importation of several “non-essential” items since April 2020 in an attempt to curtail foreign exchange outflow as the Sri Lankan rupee (LKR) depreciated around five percent year-to-date in 2021 and is expected to come under further pressure.

Sri Lanka is a challenging place to do business, with high transaction costs aggravated by an unpredictable economic policy environment, inefficient delivery of government services, and opaque government procurement practices.  Investors noted concerns over the potential for contract repudiation, cronyism, and de facto or de jure expropriation.  Public sector corruption is a significant challenge for U.S. firms operating in Sri Lanka and a constraint on foreign investment.  While the country generally has adequate laws and regulations to combat corruption, enforcement is weak, inconsistent, and selective.  U.S. stakeholders and potential investors expressed particular concern about corruption in large infrastructure projects and in government procurement.  The government pledged to address these issues, but the COVID-19 response remains its primary concern.  Historically, the main political parties do not pursue corruption cases against each other after gaining or losing political positions.

While Sri Lanka is a challenging place for businesses to operate, investors report that starting a business in Sri Lanka is relatively simple and quick, especially when compared to other lower middle-income markets.  However, scalability is a problem due to the lack of skilled labor, a relatively small talent pool and constraints on land ownership and use.  Investors note that employee retention is generally good in Sri Lanka, but numerous public holidays, a reluctance of employees to work at night, a lack of labor mobility, and difficulty recruiting women decrease efficiency and increase start-up times.  A leading international consulting firm claims the primary issue affecting investment is lack of policy consistency.

Limits on Foreign Control and Private Ownership

Foreign ownership is allowed in most sectors, although foreigners are prohibited from owning land with a few limited exceptions.  Foreigners can invest in company shares, debt securities, government securities, and unit trusts.  Many investors point to land acquisition as the biggest challenge for starting a new business.  Generally, Sri Lanka prohibits the sale of public and private land to foreigners and to enterprises with foreign equity exceeding 50 percent.  However, on July 30, 2018, Sri Lanka amended the Land (Restriction of Alienation) Act of 2014 to allow foreign companies listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) to acquire land.  Foreign companies not listed on the CSE—but engaged in banking, financial, insurance, maritime, aviation, advanced technology, or infrastructure development projects identified and approved as strategic development projects—may also be exempted from restrictions imposed by the Land Act of 2014 on a case-by-case basis.

The government owns approximately 80 percent of the land in Sri Lanka, including the land housing most tea, rubber, and coconut plantations, which are leased out, typically on 50-year terms.  Private land ownership is limited to fifty acres per person.  Although state land for industrial use is usually allotted on a 50-year lease, the government may approve 99-year leases on a case-by-case basis depending on the project.  Many land title records were lost or destroyed during the civil war, and significant disputes remain over land ownership, particularly in the North and East.  The government has started a program to return property taken by the government during the war to residents in the North and East.

The government allows up to 100 percent foreign investment in any commercial, trading, or industrial activity except for the following heavily regulated sectors: banking, air transportation; coastal shipping; large scale mechanized mining of gems; lotteries; manufacture of military hardware, military vehicles, and aircraft; alcohol; toxic, hazardous, or carcinogenic materials; currency; and security documents.  However, select strategic sectors, such as railway freight transportation and electricity transmission and distribution, are closed to any foreign capital participation. Foreign investment is also not permitted in the following businesses: pawn brokering; retail trade with a capital investment of less than $5 million; and coastal fishing.

Foreign investments in the following areas are restricted to 40 percent ownership:  a) production for export of goods subject to international quotas; b) growing and primary processing of tea, rubber, and coconut, c) cocoa, rice, sugar, and spices; d) mining and primary processing of non-renewable national resources, e) timber based industries using local timber, f) deep-sea fishing, g) mass communications, h) education, i) freight forwarding, j) travel services, k) businesses providing shipping services.

In areas where foreign investments are permitted, Sri Lanka treats foreign investors the same as domestic investors.  However, corruption reportedly may make it difficult for U.S. firms to compete against foreign bidders not subject to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when competing for public tenders.

Business Facilitation

The Department of Registrar of Companies (www.drc.gov.lk) is responsible for business registration.  Online registration (http://eroc.drc.gov.lk/) was recently introduced and registration averages four to five days.  In addition to the Registrar of Companies, businesses must register with the Inland Revenue Department to obtain a taxpayer identification number (TIN) for payment of taxes and with the Department of Labor for social security payments.

Outward Investment

The government supports outward investment, and the Export Development Board offers subsidies for companies seeking to establish overseas operations, including branch offices related to exports.  New outward investment regulations came into effect November 20, 2017.  Sri Lankan companies, partnerships, and individuals are permitted to invest in shares, units, debt securities, and sovereign bonds overseas subject to limits specified by the new Foreign Exchange Regulations.  Sri Lankan companies are also permitted to establish overseas companies.  Investments over the specified limit require the Central Bank Monetary Board’s approval.  All investments must be made through outward investment accounts (OIA).  All income from investments overseas must be routed through the same OIA within three months of payment.  (Note:  In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sri Lankan government introduced a series of measures attempting to ease pressure on the Sri Lankan rupee.  These measures included a temporary suspension on OIA transactions and additional foreign exchange controls.)

Investment Climate Statements
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