Posts Tagged ‘Taj Samudra Hotel’

SRI LANKA TOURISM: up, up and away!

Being perhaps the most senior travel journalist in the country today, beginning in 1962 as the travel correspondent of the Ceylon Daily Mirror which was the morning daily of the Times tallest in the country, on Bristol Street of Ceylon Group of Newspapers housed in the six storey building, then the, Fort, where the Customs Department has its headquarters now, I thought that I could make a few observations on Sri Lanka’s tourism industry.

Tourists enjoying the scenic beauty

As a little boy, I used to stand beside the railings of the quaint wooden Old Jetty of the Colombo Harbour and gaze at the picturesque sight of the passenger and cargo ships berthed on the deep green waters.

I used to accompany my father to his office at the Central Y.M.C.A. and then stroll across to the Old Wooden Jetty which was then located at the Colombo Port Commission Head Office building opposite the Grand Oriental Hotel (GOH).

The atmosphere, which prevailed at the time, still fills me with a deep nostalgia. I dreamt of faraway places some of them with strange sounding names. In 46 years of journalism these dreams have largely been fulfilled.

I watched with awe as boatloads of excursion tourists spending from a few hours to a couple of days moved back and forth from ship to shore. Traders in canoes loaded with an assortment of locally produced goods-curios, batiks, a full range of other handicrafts, tea, fruits etc. engaged with tourists on deck in hectic bargaining.

The tiny canoes, which were popularly known as bumboats were a great attraction and added to the old world charm. They were paddled to and fro carrying excited tourists on rides round the harbour, while passenger launches chugged along on their routine rounds servicing all the ships anchored in the port – a beautiful blend of ancient and modern.

Colombo Harbour

Alas! The picturesque bumboats are now as rare as excursion tourists. As in all other things, the old order yielding place to the new. The old wooden jetty is also no more. Instead, we have the modern terminal building beside the Queen Elizabeth Quay.

Whale watching, very popular with tourists

It was in the Colombo Harbour that the pioneers of the local tourist industry cut their teeth. Dedicated men like P.A. Ediriweera, Don Liyanage, Jim Wanigatunge, Eustace Ranasinghe, Charlie Nanayakara, Amara Amaratunge using excursionist traffic as bread and butter tourism began building the tourist industry brick by brick through blood, sweat and tears, while seeking new pastures in the West targeting the foreign individual tourists and small groups.

They sought and found discerning high spending tourists in the United States, UK and Western Europe who found Sri Lanka a demi paradise, to scour potential markets, clients.

There were times they had to go hungry, sell their possessions to keep afloat. The excursion traffic reached its peak during the 1950s and 60s with hordes of migrants from the UK and Europe voyaging to Australia to begin new lives Down Under.

During this boom, the big ocean liners such as Canberra, Oriana, Stratheden, Himalaya, pride of the P and O fleet, were regular callers in Colombo. There were also Lloyd Triestino passenger ships doing the same run while the impressive Bibby passenger cargo vessels were a regular feature. Also, luxury liners such as Kungsholm and later, the Queen Elizabeth II which usually berthed by the quay named after it.

Prominent figures in the port’s passenger operations were Cyril Lawrence, the dedicated Manager of McKinnons, Conrad Ephraims, Herbert Wijekoon, Fabian Hendricks and Egerton Hobbs of Aitken Spence. At the Customs Baggage Office were Nawaratne Senerath who became not only my best contact, but also a very firm and loyal friend, Rex Breckendrige, who actually was more of a friend of my father than mine, Preventive Officer Rajasuriya and many many others. V. P. Vittachchi who was Principal Collector of Customs, a first class administrator, who became a close friend and mentor and his deputy Gayanath Cumaratunga were the source of many scoops when I took to journalism.

In 1948 at the age of 13, I accompanied my father on board the Bibby Liner ‘Herefordshire’ to bade farewell to our small contingent bound for the Olympic Games in London.

It was a memorable picture yet framed in my mind, standing on the deck quite thrilled in the presence of such greats as the captain of the team Duncan White who won a silver, Albert Perera, to my mind the best boxer we have ever produced, Alex Obeysekere, Leslie Handunge, Eddie Gray, G.D. Peiris and a few others. It was evening and sun was setting in the west, very poignant, still etched in my memory. However, since the early 1960s, increasingly large numbers of tourists arrived by air, individually, in groups and in planeloads of back-to-back charters.

Large business conglomerates, which had hitherto not entered the hospitality industry, began investing heavily in the tourist plant. These firms are the bulwark of Sri Lankan tourism operating in all areas of the industry, generating tourist traffic, operating hotels, providing transport and other ancillary services.

The Ceylon Hotels Corporation also continues to play a significant role and has been revamped in keeping with modern trends. Hotels such as Ceylon Intercontinental and Oberoi (now the Cinnamon Grand), the Hilton, Taj Samudra, Holiday Inn strengthened the already existing hotel sector. However, the cornerstones of Sri Lanka’s hotel industry were and continue to be Galle Face, Mount Lavinia Hotel, Grand Oriental, Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya, Bandarawela Hotel, New Oriental, Galle, Queens, Kandy, which are aeon years old and steeped in history and rich tradition.

The key figures who ushered in modern tourism plant were Ken Balendra (John Keells), S. Sivaratnam (Aitken Spence), M.P.K. Furqhan (Confifi Group), George Ondatjie (Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya and Nilaweli, Trincomalee) and Herbert Cooray (Jetwing).

The resort hotels led by the Bentota Beach which was opened by Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister, was the harbinger of the chain, extending from the entire southwestern to the southern coasts. Mrs. Bandaranaike, from her first term as Prime Minister, took a personal interest in the development of the hospitality industry.

The red tape bound Ceylon Tourist Bureau which was located near the Port Terminal Building was moved to the location which now houses the five-star Taj Samudra Hotel. The Bureau was renamed the Ceylon Tourist Board.

Since then, successive governments of both the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the United National Party have played strong and active roles in the development of tourism. Both J.R. Jayewardene and his Deputy Anandatissa de Alwis, as Minister, the former as Minister and President and the latter as Secretary Ministry of Tourism and Minister played very significant roles and if my memory serves me right were the architects of the open skies policy which gave unrestricted access to international carriers Air Ceylon was the first national carrier and had tie ups with KLM, BOAC and Qantas on international routes.

National airline

With the advent of air travel, a number of international airlines began operating in this country, some by having flights into Katunayake while others had their offices here. Among them were TWA, Swiss Air, Alitalia, Aeroflot, UTA French Airlines, Thai Airways, Singapore Airlines, Cathy Pacific and others, while Indian Airlines, Pakistan Airlines and Air Ceylon operated regional flights. Later we saw the opening up of the Middle East market with the advent of Saudi Air, Kuwait Airways and the back to back charters carriers, such as Condor which flew in the first jumbo jet, Lauda Air, LTU and others whose names do not come to mind at the time of writing.

It was unfortunate that the agreement signed with Emirates was very one-sided, weighted heavily in favour of the Dubai-based airline.

The value of having a national airline must be realized from the fact that during times of crises such as the JVP insurgencies which threatened to bring the country to a standstill and three decades of naked LTTE terror, it was the national airline that carried the tourist industry and the country’s international travel links on its shoulders.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has had the wisdom to abrogate the agreement with Emirates in the national interest. It was during the tenure of President Chandrika Kumaratunga that this disastrous agreement with Emirates was signed. The UNP was very critical at the time of this tie up. But when Ranil Wickremesinghe came into power, the UNP did sweet nothing to correct the situation.

The new management must tread carefully, take wise decisions in the national interest, have proper planning and must be allowed to take professional decisions which they should be found accountable. Nothing ad-hoc. If this is done, we will have a profitable truly national carrier for the first time in the history of aviation in this country.

Foreign exchange

According to reports, tourism, which is the country’s fourth largest foreign exchange earner, has targeted one million arrivals in 2008, this was achieved in 2012. This is almost double that of the total for 2007, which was 494,000.

There has been a steady increase this year with the Middle East, India, Japan, China and several other markets becoming more active, but whether we will reach the desired one million mark is as yet somewhat of a question. At the same time, the traditional traffic from Western Europe with Germany being the largest segment, and the UK, continues despite all sorts of doomsday predictions made by anti-national, anti-social elements in this country.

The Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority has replaced the Sri Lanka Tourist Board and with Renton de Alwis, a dynamic private sector oriented administrator with expertise in marketing heading it as chairman, the administration is breaking the shackles of red tapeism. There is also the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Authority. The former is the regulatory body and the latter tasked with promoting the hospitality industry. It is essential that these two key bodies should dovetail into each other for the rapid growth of tourism. The private sector has and must continue to play an, essential vibrant role in the development of the country’s hospitality industry.

In promoting tourism, we have to be up date with the latest world trends, both in marketing and in service. Today, consumers are increasingly making their own choices as to the destinations. And this is evident by the large volume of direct inquiries being made through the Internet.

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