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Indians flock to Sri Lanka for bargains

Sri Lankans are not sure whether the glittering, duty-free shopping complex in the heart of Colombo is a boon or an embarrassment. It has led to an invasion of dollar-clutching Indians from mainland India. They arrive by every available means of transport - plane, ship, or a ferry that sails across the narrow northern straits to the port of Talaimannar.

They pack the modern building in Colombo in search of every conceivable duty-free item from color television sets, to transistor radios, to umbrellas and cosmetics.

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A large police force is assigned to the shopping center every day to ensure fair play among the shoppers and to keep the gaping crowds of Sri Lankans behind a street barrier. Most of them have never seen a color television set.

The key is American dollars. Sri Lankans themselves can buy only if they have been abroad and returned with dollars.

The crowding inside the shops is complicated by the suitcases, boxes, and even gunnysacks into which buyers stuff their purchases.

Prices are so attractive that merchants back in Madras and Bombay send ''couriers'' to buy for them. The merchant gets the courier a passport and return ticket, and gives him dollars and a shopping list. After his Sri Lankan shopping spree, the courier gets a commission and the merchant sells the goods at a large profit.

The planes from Madras are always full; the ferry from India is booked months in advance. Trains from the ferry to Colombo are packed with Indian couriers armed with gunnysacks.

After a year's operation the duty-free complex has been such a fantastic success that the Sri Lankan government is planning to erect another building, with an underground parking space, a hotel, and a restaurant.

Shopping-complex officials say that 95 percent of the buyers are Indians from mainland India. Of the 100,000 Indian tourists who visit Sri Lanka every year, 50 percent come only to buy at the complex.

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The man behind Sri Lanka's duty-free bonanza is the minister for trade and industry, Lalith Athulathmudali, who masterminded the Sri Lanka free-trade zone.

In the past year sales from the 42 shops in the complex totaled more than $60 million. The average customer spent $500. Nobody can estimate the profits made by the merchants in India when the couriers come home.

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