HotelsJetwing’s Hiran Cooray: ‘I have no words to describe the sadness that this has happened to such a beautiful country.’

Heartbreak of a Sri Lankan hotelier

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Hiran Cooray: “We can’t give up on tourism.”
Hiran Cooray: “We can’t give up on tourism.”

Hiran Cooray is the chairman of Jetwing Symphony PLC which comes under the Jetwing family of hotels. He has been talking to the Daily Mirror in Sri Lanka about the devastating impact on the country of both Covid-19 and the political turmoil that spilled onto the streets of Colombo. Some extracts from that interview: 

On why nobody spoke up about the political crisis in Sri Lanka

We went through probably the worst ever time after Covid. Even after the Easter Sunday [bombing] attacks, there was a lot of international support for us. Analysts said it would take probably one to two years for us to recover, but because of international support, within six months, we were back on track.

Then, of course, Covid came with all the international borders closed. That was the worst-ever time that tourism, not only Sri Lanka but globally, faced. Our income literally went to zero. We survived because the government gave us a moratorium. We did not have to service the loans.

Then, when we were recovering from COVID, comes this [political upheaval]. I’m very sad because none of us, not only in tourism, in other sectors as well, never spoke of this crisis. Some in the media alerted the public, but even that was not taken seriously. So, we, like a little crab in a boiling pot, were swimming.  Nobody spoke up.

Why the country can’t give upon tourism

Tourism is a low hanging fruit. It can take off very easily and it can be wiped out very easily. Some governments take tourism very seriously. Some don’t.

This industry now has become a headache because there’s so much investment, so many people dependent on it. Close to two and one half million people [in Sri Lanka] depend on tourism.

Tourism has literally come to nothing. We are back trying to bring us out of the mess. Once again, we always think this is the last time we are in a mess like we did after the Easter Sunday bombings. We were getting out of Covid and now this happened.

This our life. We can’t give up tourism. Tourism is an industry that will contribute a lot to our country to get us out of the balance of payments issues that we are facing. We need tourism and we must be committed to move this industry forward.  

On claims that the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority favoured certain hotels, certain people, and that they were not looking after the industry.

Unfortunately, yes. That should not have happened. We had a time during Covid when the industry should have been brought together. That’s how we got out of situations in the past.

We had the airport bombings in 2001. We had the central bank bombing in 1996, And then we had the tsunami in 2004. When that happened, the travel associations, the hotels association, the inbound travel agents, the outbound travel agents, everybody was sitting in the tourist board and discussing what to do?

Tourism is an industry that is bound to face difficulties. If somebody starts sneezing in Europe, we get pneumonia.

We must work together with the public and the private sector. But there will be always difficulties because the private sector will demand something. The government will have a different objective. Be that as it may, people must come together and sort out those differences and work.

On hopes for a light at the end of the tunnel?

I always see light at the end of the tunnel because that’s my nature. I can’t see any darkness any time. That’s because of my faith in God.

But be that as it may, there is now a necessity for all Sri Lankans to get out of this balance of payments crisis we are in. We must earn more foreign exchange. Tourism is one of those sectors that can bring foreign currency into the country.

And I appeal, given this opportunity, that everyone who is in tourism to bring their money into this country. Never keep five cents outside because it’s our responsibility.

The other is we must learn to serve our customers with Sri Lankan products, Sri Lankan food, not be hellbent on serving anything that is foreign.

Believe me, no tourist comes for two weeks to this country to eat a salmon from Norway or Scotland or Alaska. Right. They are coming to eat tropical fruit, tropical seafood and all of that. Therefore, we must have that confidence now to serve our foreign customers with Sri Lankan fusion food. 

“I can’t think of a better country than this to live,” says Hiran Cooray.
“I can’t think of a better country than this to live,” says Hiran Cooray. Photo Credit: Hiran Cooray

On the heartbreak of the turmoil in a beautiful country

I feel very sad and embarrassed that this has happened to our country. I have no words to describe it. I can’t believe that we are in this situation for such a beautiful country. I have travelled to maybe 100 countries in the world. I can’t think of a better country than this to live.  

The outlook for Jetwing hotels  

We are just barely surviving. Our priority is to look after the 3200 people who are directly working with us and so many others who supply food and other items to us.

They are seriously dependent on us. Then we must service the banks. We cannot forget the banks. They have helped us to expand. They have lent money to us, and we must pay that back.

I can’t think of doing new hotels until we look after those who have looked after us. After that, hopefully in three to five years’ time, if things settle down, we will add new experiences, new things, all of that, for sure. 

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