With car imports banned so shore up Sri Lanka's currency, car prices in the country have soared to eye-watering levels. AFP/Ishara S Kodikara
COLOMBO - Supermarket shelves are bare and restaurants can't serve meals, but Sri Lanka's economic crisis is a bonanza for used car dealers, with vehicle shortages pushing prices higher than a house in a nice area.
The island nation of 22 million is on the brink of bankruptcy, inflation is red hot and the government has barred a range of "non-essential" imports to save dollars needed to buy food, medicine and fuel.
In the car market, this two-year ban has kept factory-fresh automobiles off local roads, forcing desperate buyers to pay some of the world's highest prices for beaten-up compacts and no-frills family sedans.
A five-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser was on offer online for an eye-watering 62.5 million rupees ($312,500) -- triple the pre-ban rate, and enough to buy a house in a middle-class Colombo neighbourhood or a new luxury apartment in the city centre.
A decade-old Fiat five-seater with a busted engine that might be stripped for parts elsewhere was listed at $8,250 -- more than twice Sri Lanka's average yearly income.
Car ownership remains a virtual necessity in the traffic-snarled streets of Colombo, where a ramshackle bus and rail network was already struggling with overcrowding.
The number of taxis has also fallen sharply, with drivers selling their cabs to cash in on the dizzying prices, and those still working charging double their old fares or more.
"You must have your own car," said Udaya Hegoda Arachchi, another buyer preparing to bite the bullet at a dealership.
"We can't expect prices to come down anytime soon, given the economic situation in the country," he told AFP.
Covid has sent Sri Lanka into a tailspin, drying up all-important earnings from tourism and foreign remittances.
In March 2020 the government brought in a wide-ranging import ban -- including for new cars -- to stop foreign currency from leaving the country.
But the policy has not been able to staunch the outflow of dollars, and has instead left the nation struggling to source critical goods.
Food retailers have rationed rice, restaurants have shuttered because they cannot find cooking gas, and cash-strapped power utilities unable to afford oil have imposed rolling blackouts. Farmers have run out of fertiliser.