Not only did the new peace mark a clean break from a tragic era, it acted as the launching pad for the country’s journey towards becoming a rising star in world tourism. Now, it’s emerging as a serious contender at the luxury end of the spectrum.
There was never any doubt about Sri Lanka’s potential, even during the tough times. The teardrop-shaped island off India’s south-eastern flank has inspired everyone from Arab traders – who named the island Serendib, the source material for the word ‘serendipity’ – to the British colonists who settled during the years of empire. Modern visitors, too, have found themselves seduced by the nation’s tropical bounty of beaches, mountains and jungle as well as its abundant animal and marine life, and rich Buddhist and Hindu cultures.
“We have always had a five-star island,” says Hiran Cooray,
Chairman of Jetwing Hotels, Sri Lanka’s most prominent domestic hotel chain. “Now it is just a question of harnessing these attributes
to make it truly a five-star destination.”
Taking heed of these overwhelmingly positive numbers, a clutch of big name hotel brands are now either entering Sri Lanka or expanding their portfolios in the country.
The debut of Thailand’s luxury Anantara brand in Sri Lanka is due in the third quarter of 2015 with the Anantara Tangalle resort set to open on the country’s south coast. The Anantara Kalutara, adjacent to the existing Avani Kalutara resort, also on the south coast of Sri Lanka, is scheduled to commence operations at the same time.
Sheraton, Hyatt and Moevenpick have all announced hotel projects in the capital, Colombo, while other big hotel firms with their sights set on the country include Shangri-La and Marriott. The addition of these major players will complement an existing hotel sector that has been burnished by the presence of several acclaimed independent boutique hotels as well the award-winning Amangalla and Amanwella run by the Aman Resorts group.
Opening up Sri Lanka’s potential
Domestic chains such as Jetwing are also making significant investment in order to improve and expand their hotel inventory. The company is set to unveil new luxury properties in the capital Colombo, the pilgrimage town of Dambulla, the hill country enclave of Wellawaya and, perhaps most significantly, the northern Tamil city of Jaffna – previously out of bounds to tourists during the civil war.
“We see great potential in the north of the country,” continues Cooray. “As well as great beaches and fascinating landscapes, the area has an entirely different culture and feel to the southern parts of the country due to its Hindu traditions.”
To fulfill its commitment to providing guests with a world class five star service and facilities, Jetwing has pledged up to $100million in investment through 2017, a sum that will be spent on upgrading its existing properties as well as ensuring its new inventory meets the demands of the high-end market. Sustainability is another key part of the chain’s strategy and it hopes to generate 80% of its energy through solar and biomass within the next 18 months.
“We have to swim with the big boys if we don’t want to get swallowed and I’m confident that is just what we will do,” adds Cooray. “There’s a real feeling of solidity about what is happening in the country’s tourism industry at present. So much so that we are willing and comfortable to plough a huge chunk of our profits back into the business.”
Stability, growth and confidence seem to be prominent among the words currently used in association with Sri Lanka. A relatively new government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena has moved to smooth previously rocky relations with the West and neighboring India while continuing to nurture a warm friendship with China – a source market with by far the most significant growth in visitor arrivals into the country. The new regime, meanwhile, has vowed to press forward with major infrastructural improvements set in motion by the previous incumbent, President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Connecting loops from the Colombo – Katunatyake Expressway, a fast airport link from the capital to Bandaranaike Airport, to southern highways are due to open later this year, slashing journey times to major destinations such as Galle and Kalutara.
With the paradisaical atolls of the Maldives lying tantalizingly close, Sri Lanka’s potential as part of a twin-destination luxury package is obvious. Yet those who know the country intimately are confident that it is more than capable of catering to the high-end market on its own terms.
“Besides beaches, Sri Lanka has a rich culture and features mountains, tea estates and enormous amounts of nature,” concludes Cooray. “Visitors can see blue whales in the ocean one day and observe elephants the next. Few countries can truly claim to offer this value proposition.”