In her series From the Eyes of an Ex-Pat, Tanya Warnakulasuriya features Ayumi Saito who came to Sri Lanka from the Japanese village of Gumma and was bowled over by the island’s balmy climate, its accommodative culture and opportunities for a career in travel.
Ayumi Saito lived a life that many Sri Lankan women can relate to. The middle sibling of three, her upbringing in the remote village of Gumma, 100km away from Tokyo with grandparents and parents, was conservative.
“Our house was surrounded by paddy, fruit and vegetable fields. My friends and family were born there, grew up there and live there. No one leaves. They think I’m like an alien for leaving. Even now, years later, they still ask why I want to live in Sri Lanka”
So why did Ayumi leave her home and traditional community at the age of 26?
“I had an aunty who loved to travel and I think it came from her. She came on my first family holiday to Hawaii – which is the stereotypical holiday destination of anyone travelling overseas from Japan. I had seen beaches in Japan, but Hawaii was so different. It made a huge impression on me. After that holiday I longed to see what other countries were like.”
Sri Lanka – the gateway to a career in travel
After five years in Switzerland, Ayumi embarked on a new adventure in Sri Lanka.
“I came for the first time to Sri Lanka in 2009, to work for an embroidery company in Avissawella on a three-year contract. Arriving on a night-flight, we took a mini-bus straight to Avissawella from the airport. On a bumpy road in the pitch dark, I couldn’t see any road signs or landmarks, so I was quite anxious. Thankfully, I woke up next morning, to the beautiful mountains and palm trees and felt much better.”
Working in Sri Lanka became the gateway through which Ayumi would fulfil her aspirations of working in travel.
“When the contract ended, I wanted to see the island before heading back to Japan. During that holiday, I heard that Aman Resorts’ Sales & Concierge Services section in Colombo had a vacancy in their Japanese team. I applied and got it.”
A one-of-a-kind tourist destination
I wondered if Sri Lanka’s work culture was markedly different to Japan’s. Did Ayumi have to adapt a lot to living and working here?
“The Japanese are very disciplined but not very flexible. So, the culture in Sri Lanka was entirely different for me. I found this new, less structured culture very interesting!
Sri Lankan work culture is great. Japanese people work too hard. They do lots of overtime, sometimes just staying late because the boss hasn’t left yet. Sri Lanka has a healthier balance to work-life, which I prefer.”
With almost ten years of experience in Sri Lankan Tourism, I asked Ayumi what the appeal was of Sri Lanka as a tourist destination and had that appeal waned after COVID-19,
“Sri Lanka offers a variety of activities and excursions as a holiday destination. From beaches and wildlife to historical sites and culture, it has everything. The appeal is still there post-COVID, and initiatives, like being one of the first countries to allow vaccinated tourists in without discriminating against certain vaccinations really helped. It is only now that other countries are following suite.”
Did Ayumi have any advice for the young Sri Lankans keen to join the travel industry?
“Research and understand your guests’ backgrounds. For example, the Japanese take a hot bath every night. As this is customary in Japan, guests will often ask if their room has a bath. Local operators are used to requests for a bath, but they might not realise that the guest will need 40-degree hot water every night to fill the bath. By being aware of other people’s cultures and customs you can offer a level of service that meets customers’ expectations.”
ANI Private Resorts- a unique formula
For the past four years, Ayumi has worked as Regional Sales and Marketing Manager for the ANI Private Resorts located in Sri Lanka and Thailand.
The high-end private villa resorts also located in the Caribbean, combine the privacy of a villa with the luxury service of a five-star resort exclusively for a single group at a time.
This unique formula attracts a variety of movie-stars, Royalty and global dignitaries that Ayumi and the ANI staff work hard to accommodate, meeting any special requests and occasionally having to politely decline a few.
“We had one group who wanted live kangaroos shipped in so they could see them jumping around the gardens,” she smiles, “We also had to refuse a request for Galle Fort to be closed off so that a celebrity could visit. Generally, our guests are just happy to enjoy the privacy.”
The specially trained ANI Sri Lanka team ensure a consistently high level of friendly yet discreet service that is highly valued by guests.
“Our staff knows that just because they are meeting high-profile individuals, it is not appropriate to become over-familiar. For example, connecting with guests on social media, is strictly forbidden. Most people would think there is nothing wrong with this, so the training is important to explain why the levels of trust and privacy we maintain are paramount to our guests.”
I was interested to find out if ANI Sri Lanka has any CSR projects that gave back to the local community.
“All our locations have a non-profit Art Academy just a short distance from the resort itself. Each Academy offers local artists an immersive three-year art syllabus based on artist Anthony J Waichulis’s training methodology. It teaches creative freedom through logic and discipline and gives training on how to commercialise art. The materials, facilities and even lunch are free to local students and we have a website where students can sell their work online receiving sales proceeds in full.”
If only the traffic wasn’t so scary
Ayumi’s overall reflection of her loves and hates in Sri Lanka focused quite definitely on wellbeing.
“Since living in Sri Lanka my hay-fever which is really bad has stopped. I think the warm weather and the fresh not overly processed or packaged food has helped with this. Also, the more flexible attitudes to punctuality make life less pressurised. The only thing I would change would be the crazy Sri Lankan driving!”