Few countries upon being discovered have being described in such complimentary terms as the island of (Sri) Lanka or Ceylon. Serenedib to the Persians, Taprobane to Greeks, “island of delights” to Arabs, and “Jade pendant of the Indian Ocean” gushed Marco Polo and the “Island Of Gems” claimed the Chinese. It was the embodiment of paradise to John Milton, Miguel de Cervantes and Anton Chekov and countless other writers and poets. Myths and traditions describe it as a base of Gods and celestial beings waging wars and epic romances in mystical ancient times. The recorded history of Sri Lanka is a plentiful read of trade, discovery, invasions, religions, traditions and different civilizations. From every end of the country the geography and history changes extraordinarily making this uniquely located island in the Indian Ocean a complex tapestry of peoples, languages, cuisines, traditions, faiths, temperatures, habits and folklore.
The recent almost 500 years of European domination, first by the Portuguese, positioned in Goa ousting the moor bastions on our coasts, to establish trade and the establishment of the Catholic faith amongst the natives by the sword if necessary. Followed by the Dutch ousting the Portuguese, and then the English, the Dutch, thereafter. These bold European nations dominant during shifting periods of world supremacy left their features in evidence in administration, language, politics, peoples, laws, dress, architecture and institutions. Invasions, treaties and schemes closely watched by the Sinhala Buddhists Kingdom the majority in the south and highlands and the Tamil Hindu minority Kingdom in the North of the island. These two kingdoms fell to battling each other for more than 30 years of despondent conflict soon after ‘independence’. Creating much of the confusion and wasted time and misery that mother Lanka is only now emerging from to catch up with a world that has moved on rapidly and to claim its rightful place amongst the great nations of the 21st Century.
It is to this island that the idea of tourism in an organised arrangement was first seriously conceived of by the then UNP government in the 1960s with the establishment of the Ceylon Tourist Board act in 1966 by the minister of state Hon. J.R Jayewardene providing a ‘conceptual base and institutional support’ for the infant industry. This was the beginning of a trade ignored by previous governments and given life and as a result today, tourist resorts exist in almost every city on the island. With an annual turnover of over 500,000 tourists enjoying its sandy beaches and diverse attractions bringing in an enormous amount of foreign currency and creating jobs and opportunities in every sector. Mr. Geoffrey Bawa the now world renowned and the most celebrated architect of Sri Lanka joined with the early pioneers of the hotel and resort industry at this time to create and build some of the best designed resorts on the island that are now landmarks of architecture and history. One example was the Blue Lagoon Tourist Holiday Resort in Negombo owned by the iconic pioneer hotelier Mr. ‘Gem’ Milhuisen and in-cooperated on March 1968 on 12 acres of coconut and garden bordering both the Indian ocean and the Negombo lagoon. Overseeing construction was the debonair Mr. Milhuisen on horseback. Recently purchased by Jetwing and beautifully refurbished and renamed the Jetwing Lagoon it is a composite story of continuance and genius.
The 1983 riots and the consequent emergence of the LTTE and the 30 year conflict saw the tourism industry suffer its worst losses with tourist arrivals which were at the time from western Europe and Scandinavia, fall to much more than half, creating severe hardships and personal catastrophes to family owned hotels and resorts, bankrupting many overtime and creating a hard struggle for those that persevered. It is only now in the fresh post war era and in a vibrant global tourist industry that rapid growth and investment in hotels, resorts, boutiques and in the travel industry regions of Sri Lanka has erupted. Making tourism the fastest expanding industry on the island in history.
In the older days the Galle Face Hotel and the Mount Lavinia Hotel were the preferred lodgings of discerning travellers to the port of Colombo. Icons and heritage treasures, these city resorts were the few elite alternatives for travellers to Colombo for much more than a 150 years. It is to the national pride of this country, that both hotels still exists under the same families and are still the premier locations for old world luxury and service. The Galle Face Hotel now being completely renovated will stand grandly as she always has, at the end of Galle face green and is due a grand opening in September under a dynamic new team. The old Oberoi Hotel, which eventually became the Cinnamon Grand, has an amazing 15 superb restaurants and 501 rooms in an oasis of hospitality in the heart of the city. The nearby shopping arcade and apartment residencies make this Grand lady convenient and ultra active throughout the day and night. Family friendly and catering to every imaginable market it’s ‘the’ place to take your partner or family out for an incredible restaurant experience. Anyone wanting to taste authentic Sri Lankan cuisine in a village setting in the city should not miss the ‘Nuga Gama’ at the Grand.
A glimpse of the past with the future
New hotels and brands soon to take on Colombo and being constructed are The Shangri La and ITC on the front end of the Galle face green and the Hyatt Regency on the opposite side of the Presidents palace on Galle road. Movenpick, Sheraton and Four Seasons are already here and many more international hotel brands are poised to take advantage of the emerging popularity of the islands reputation as one of the most sort after travel destinations in the world. Smaller boutique hotels with designer furnishings and exclusive itineraries are springing up in every scenic location imaginable. Some of the better known and older are the Villa Bentota of the Paradise Road fame and The Dutch Fort Hotel in the Galle Dutch Fort, which in itself is a massive historic tourist attraction. Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and the hill country are home to the Queens Hotel, St. Andrews and the Tea factory hotel. The number of new and old hotels and resorts are too numerous to mention in one column. Heritage Kadalama, The Lodge Habarana, Nilaveli in Trincomalee and so many more deserve a description and we will get to each and every one in detail as we progress with our journey, one step at a time.
This week we will focus on a particular resort that makes an interesting study. It is the Dutch Bay resort in Kalpitya. It captures the spirit of the entrepreneurial hotelier in Sri Lanka.
Nestled in one corner of the Dutch Bay Island peninsula in Kalpitya is the 182-acre Dutch bay resort bordering vast mangrove Lagoons on the one side and the Ocean on the furthest side. On Dutch Bay island are the remains of a beautiful 400 year old Dutch Church built entirely with the mortar of the times limestone and coral reflecting the rich historic inheritance of the region. The flora of the island is a beautiful bushy mangrove, and palms and ferns of every variety. A region only recently explored since the end of the war it is one of the best locations in the world for any type of sport or industry requiring wind. The area is dotted with wind turbines and the lagoon beaches with clubs and little resorts devoted to kite surfing. An addictive sport that has a following of professionals from all over the world that follow the best winds. It is they that have discovered Kalpitya and its potential for kite surfing making it a globally popular destination. Over a short period of time Kalpitya has seen an explosion of investment mainly orchestrated by the government to attract financiers to develop the area. There are very few star class resorts because of the lack of basic infrastructure like water and electricity, roads and accessibility. This has somewhat slowed the certain invasion of the co-operate tourism machine to this pristine and exquisite location.
Dutch Bay is where a typically Sri Lankan entrepreneurial hotelier spirit is making a name. Mr. Neil D Silva a self-made investor has built a beautiful resort on Dutch Bay Island and has in the process developed a reputation for tenacity, survival and brilliance. 16 beautiful white villas border the edge of the lagoon in white Dutch style haciendas with every luxurious amenity. Separating each other are the untouched mangroves. Connecting each other and the path to the main compound are long stretches of wooden decks and Jetty’s. The entire property is a natural sanctuary of exclusivity. The logistics of obtaining supplies by boat from the town and transporting guests to and from the island and maintaining its high standards operating on generators, is a task well done by the resort. It is this type of bravado that is required by the new pedigree of entrepreneur hoteliers all around the island, taking the risks and succeeding through hardships which every trade faces in its formation, to succeed eventually with integrity and passion. We wish them every success.
Next week we will look at the Galle Face hotel and its transformation and future through the eyes of its new GM Mr. Patton.