CELEBRATING THE SMILE OF OUR FIVE-STAR ISLAND
Making anyone feel at home with a greeting of ayubowan and a welcoming smile, is the Chairman of Jetwing Hotels, Hiran Cooray. One of the most respected industry leaders, the country can take pride in, Hiran Cooray is an epitome of true Sri Lankan hospitality. In a chat with Lankan Isle the trend-setting corporate leader shares his vision for Sri Lankan tourism and what it takes to make this island second to none in the world…
By Randima Attygalle
“Ours is a five-star island,” says Chairman of Jetwing Hotels, Hiran Cooray with a smile. The torch bearer of a second-generation business heritage, Cooray prides in authentic Sri Lankan values which have shaped his enterprise. “Aganthuka sathkaraya (hospitality) runs in the blood of our people, a smile comes naturally to them. We capitalize on these signature Sri Lankan facets to the fullest in our business and convince our associates that this is what it takes to make a true Sri Lankan.”
Built on the cornerstones of honesty, humility, tenacity and passion, the Jetwing legacy of Herbert Cooray is kept alive by Hiran and sister Shiromal. Together they continue to write its story, replete with greatest religious teachings which make “the best management books for human behaviour and organizations” as Cooray points out. “We are not shy to use religion in our business,” he adds.
The Blue Oceanic Beach Hotel (present Jetwing Blue, Negombo) with its modest origins in the mid-1970s, sowed the seeds to the growing Jetwing family that it is today. When founder, Herbert Cooray passed on the baton to his two children at a relatively young age, they were confident to run the race. The trust the visionary business leader placed in his children, prompted him not only to vest responsibility in them, but the ownership of the entire business. This he did, as his son recollects today with absolutely no hold. “We were indeed blessed to have had a father like ours. Not many parents would have done what my father did and to date we would keep that trust, very often looking at things through his lens.” Calling himself a ‘blessed child’ to have been brought up by parents to whom human values were the norm, the esteemed corporate leader he is today, inspires many with his humility. “I’m the conductor and not the composer!,” he admits with a smile.
A heritage with a few parallels, welcoming and smiling people who are ready to share their humble pie with anyone who’d walk through the doors, an ‘eternal summer’ shining across the year and so much more… “Not many countries can boast of this beautiful landscape and beautiful people,” reflects the Jetwing Chief who is disheartened that despite the luxuries galore, the country is on a ‘negative track’. “This negativity saddens me and if our tourism is handled with responsibility, not only can it fortify the national economy, but we could be the hospitality leader.”
Positioning the country as a “luxury cum eco-friendly destination” is Jetwing Chief’s vision for Sri Lanka’s tourism. Targeting high-net worth travellers, giving value and authentic experiences and conserving our national assets are mooted by the industry leader in realizing this vision. “Tourism cannot be allowed at the cost of our national assets which are for us and the whole world. At the moment Sigiriya and Yala are experiencing over-crowding which is against sustainable tourism. There has to be controlled visitation if we are to offer any visitor a life-time experience. It is not enough to proclaim that ‘I climbed Sigiriya with thousand others and came down’. The place should enable learning and reading material if one is to spend five hours in Sigiriya in a holistic way,” maintains Cooray who calls for responsible destination management.
An advocate of tourism to propagate peace and reconciliation, Cooray avers that enabling people to travel and mix and share diverse ‘stories’ could do wonders. “After a brutal war where so many lives have been lost, it will take a couple of generations to heal and tourism can contribute to that healing process by enabling people to share their views, their woes and open hearts to each other. Tourism cannot be undermined in the reconciliation process.”
Be it food, dance forms or crafts, tourism urges a nation to revisit these gifts, asserts Cooray. “If dumbara mat- making or laaksha will not generate a sufficient income, the craftsmen will naturally turn to some other vocation. Sadly, this is at the cost of a culture, thus calling for the revival of these age-old traditions.” Fuelling the industry with innovation such as spice trails, tea-pairing with traditional sweetmeats are also mooted by him.
Reflecting on the industry spurring complementary economic and employment opportunities, the Jetwing Chairman surmises: “tourism is one industry which can be linked to so many areas – be it – culture, environment, wildlife or health. Integrating tourism into these areas can result a win-win situation where economic benefits can be reaped by both.” The Malaysian success story, as Cooray points out, offers inspiration in this regard. “During Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s reign, he wanted tourism to emerge the second largest foreign exchange earner, so much so he appointed a Sub-Cabinet Committee headed by the Tourism Minister. This was visionary thinking.”
An industry leader who urges to take pride in being ‘Sri Lankans’ that we are, Cooray charges that ‘Ceylon’ is a thing of the past and what needs to be marketed is ‘Sri Lanka’. “We are still living in a bygone era. While our national flag is carried by Sri Lankan Cricket, Sri Lankan Tourism and Sri Lankan Garments, we still carry Ceylon Tea, Ceylon Cinnamon and Ceylon Sapphires. From an international perspective, not many would know that Ceylon and Sri Lanka are synonymous. We need to move ahead and re-brand ourselves as ‘Sri Lanka’ because that is what we are and what we should be proud of.” He further notes that media could be a catalyst in promoting a ‘yes we could do’ attitude among Sri Lankans. “The media across the world is besieged with negative news- deaths, crimes, economic crises and closure of companies, but come positive news, hardly any is celebrated. It is tragic that failure makes stories.”
Thinking big, planning and moving forward can put the country on a forward gear, notes the industrial leader who affirms that for an island so small, we have done big things and we can continue to do even more. “We don’t need to be a country of 500 million people to be doing big things. It gives an enormous sense of pride to be coming from a small island and to be recognized internationally,” says Cooray who has walked the talk. “Seeing us clinching the World Cup in 1996 and Susanthika Jayasinghe running in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 were just ‘whoa’ moments for us in recent history. That is the pride of a nation. We are a blessed and a beautiful island-nation. Be it internal or external waters, a cold or a warm climate, we have it all. We are second to none in the world,” concludes the son of the soil to whom ‘ayubowan’ comes most naturally….
The writer is the Co Editor of Lankan Isle. She is also an award winning senior journalist and a lawyer.