CHARM Colombo’s tourism pro­pels the Lankan econ­omy

Colombo’s tourism pro­pels its econ­omy ahead, re­ports Akanksha Maker

Business Traveller (India) - - Contents -

Colombo ac­quired the sta­tus of be­ing Sri Lanka’s cap­i­tal back in 1815, when the coun­try was ceded to the Bri­tish Em­pire. This was re­tained when it gained in­de­pen­dence in 1948. In 1978, ad­min­is­tra­tive func­tions were moved to Sri Jayawar­denepura Kotte (Colombo’s satel­lite city), due to which it is known as the coun­try’s “of­fi­cial cap­i­tal”. How­ever, Colombo is still des­ig­nated as the com­mer­cial cap­i­tal of Sri Lanka.

There are two op­er­a­tors that have daily direct flights to Colombo from Mum­bai (where I flew out of) —

Jet Air­ways and SriLankan Air­lines. I chose the for­mer’s overnight flight that ar­rived in the wee hours of the morn­ing. Dawn hadn’t even cracked yet when we left the air­port at 4:45am. Early ris­ers and fit­ness en­thu­si­asts jogged, walked or ran on the streets, while large groups of chil­dren par­tic­i­pated in boot camps at the prom­e­nade of Galle Face Green, the ocean-side ur­ban park. It stretches for 500 metres along the coast of the In­dian Ocean.

I was in the city for the open­ing of Shangri-La Colombo, re­viewed for our Fe­bru­ary issue and ac­ces­si­ble on busi­nesstrav­eller.com/tried-andtested-category/ho­tels. On Novem­ber 17, the hotel of­fi­cially opened to the pub­lic with a grand cer­e­mony that en­com­passed Chi­nese and Sri Lankan tra­di­tions such as “dot­ting of the eye” of the dragon, cer­e­mo­nial lion dances and light­ing of lamps. The open­ing was at­tended by more than 500 guests and di­plo­matic big­wigs in­clud­ing Maithri­pala Sirisena, the Pres­i­dent of the Demo­cratic So­cial­ist Repub­lic of Sri Lanka and Ranil Wick­remesinghe, Prime Min­is­ter of Sri Lanka.

Dur­ing the next few days of my stay at the prop­erty, I got a chance to ex­plore the cap­i­tal city in depth be­fore Shangri-La Colombo’s of­fi­cial in­au­gu­ra­tion. Sug­ges­tions on what to see in Colombo are to­wards the end of this ar­ti­cle.

PO­SI­TION­ING

Tourism — leisure and busi­ness — has al­ways been im­por­tant for the econ­omy of Colombo. The city has been amongst the most rapidly de­vel­op­ing ones in the Asia Pa­cific re­gion. Ow­ing largely to this, Sri Lanka main­tains an av­er­age GDP of six per cent this year and fore­casts an av­er­age GDP of 6.2 per cent un­til 2020. The ser­vice sec­tor con­trib­utes to almost 60 per cent of the econ­omy — this in­cludes fi­nan­cial ser­vices, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion and lastly tourism. As per the Sri Lanka Tourism De­vel­op­ment Author­ity (SLTDA), be­tween 2010 and 2016, tourism be­came the third largest con­trib­u­tor to its For­eign Ex­change Earn­ings (FEE) from be­ing the fifth largest one.

“Most of the other coun­tries in the re­gion saw dras­tic de­vel­op­ment and lost out on their quaint­ness — an as­pect that Sri Lanka has man­aged to pre­serve in spite of its ad­vance­ments.”

These num­bers don’t seem sur­pris­ing since Sri Lanka’s vivid land­scapes and strong tra­di­tions are enough to wel­come all kinds of trav­ellers. Its azure beaches, an­ti­quated forts, lip-smack­ing cui­sine, cul­tured cit­i­zens and warm hospi­tal­ity draw vis­i­tors from the world over. The FIT (fre­quent in­de­pen­dent trav­eller) es­pe­cially, finds Sri Lanka ap­peal­ing thanks to its mod­est size and af­ford­abil­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to Tim Wright, vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager at Shangri-La Colombo, the city has the po­ten­tial to be­come one of the most pre­ferred destinations within the re­gion. “Colombo of­fers good value for money for trav­ellers on a bud­get. Her­itage build­ings, good in­fra­struc­ture and clean roads are added ad­van­tages. All the modern fa­cil­i­ties that tourists ex­pect from a big city are in place. At the same time, Colombo has man­aged to re­tain its old-world charm with its colo­nial struc­tures and churches. And of course, its peo­ple are well spo­ken and well read, and hospi­tal­ity is warm,” he said.

Wright fur­ther stressed on the is­land coun­try’s un­touched beauty be­ing its unique sell­ing point. “Most of the other coun­tries in the re­gion saw dras­tic de­vel­op­ment and lost out on their quaint­ness — an as­pect that Sri Lanka has man­aged to pre­serve in spite of its ad­vance­ments.”

CON­NEC­TIV­ITY

Over time, the gov­ern­ment has be­gun to em­brace and re­alise the po­ten­tial of Sri Lanka’s ver­sa­tile of­fer­ings. Not only has it ro­bustly been boost­ing in­fra­struc­ture and con­nec­tiv­ity, it has also made it eas­ier for trav­ellers to visit the is­land coun­try, thanks to the con­ve­nient Elec­tronic Travel Au­tho­ri­sa­tion (ETA) process. I no­ticed this when I vis­ited, as all I had to do was com­plete the visa ap­pli­ca­tion process from eta.gov.lk, af­ter which I re­ceived an ETA ac­knowl­edge­ment that I pre­sented to the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cers in both the coun­tries at the time of travel.

All this is teamed up with ex­cel­lent con­nec­tiv­ity to Colombo from the rest of the globe, as well as within Sri Lanka, which makes the is­land eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble to the world. Since Sri Lanka is a rel­a­tively small is­land with an area of 65,610 sqm and a pop­u­la­tion of around 21 mil­lion (Mum­bai’s pop­u­la­tion is about 18 mil­lion), tourists more of­ten than not fly into Colombo to be­gin their jaunt across the coun­try. (The sec­ond in­ter­na­tional air­port is near Ham­ban­tota to the south and is served by fewer air­lines.) Rented cars, the bus or the train are com­mon modes of trans­port to ex­plore Sri Lanka from Colombo.

While book­ing my ticket to Colombo, I hap­pened to read up on the im­proved con­nec­tions be­tween In­dia and Sri Lanka. Air­lines ply­ing the re­gion have ac­tively been adding flights be­tween In­dian destinations and the com­mer­cial cap­i­tal of Sri Lanka. Last year, SriLankan started non-stop Hyderabad-Colombo and Coim­bat­oreColombo flights. A direct flight be­tween Varanasi and Colombo was flagged off by Air In­dia in 2017. In­dia’s low-cost air­line, IndiGo be­gan op­er­a­tions be­tween Chen­nai and Ben­galuru, and Colombo this Jan­uary.

In­dia’s prox­im­ity to Sri Lanka and sim­i­lar­i­ties in their cul­tural fab­rics (Ta­mil­ians con­sti­tute about 11 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion) have con­tin­ued to at­tract more In­dian trav­ellers over the years. In fact, In­dia is the num­ber one source mar­ket for in­ter­na­tional tourists to Sri Lanka — a sta­tus the na­tion has held for the past ten years. The south of In­dia is bet­ter con­nected to Colombo due to

its prox­im­ity, en­abling south In­di­ans to visit for a quick week­end get­away as they could reach Colombo sooner than they could reach north In­dia.

HOSPI­TAL­ITY

Bet­ter con­nec­tiv­ity and an in­crease in tourism fig­ures have at­tracted a num­ber of in­ter­na­tional hospi­tal­ity com­pa­nies to in­vest here. Apart from Shangri-La Ho­tels and Re­sorts, an­other heavy­weight that’s soon mak­ing its way to Sri Lanka is In­dia’s ITC Ho­tels. It plans to de­but its first in­ter­na­tional ven­ture in Colombo, right be­side Shangri-La Colombo, a prop­erty that was under de­vel­op­ment when I was there. Be­ing im­ple­mented by Wel­comHo­tels Lanka, a wholly owned sub­sidiary of ITC Ho­tels, ITC Colombo One is sched­uled to open in 2021.This 300-key prop­erty will be a mixed-use project with both hotel and res­i­den­tial of­fer­ings. Speak­ing at the launch of the project back in 2014, Y C Devesh­war, chair­man of ITC said, “In­dia and Sri Lanka have shared a com­mon her­itage in the sub-con­ti­nent and have gen­er­a­tions of rich so­cio-cul­tural ties.”

Per­son­ally, one of the first ref­er­ences in­grained in my mind of Sri Lanka are from the In­dian epic of Ra­mayana, which talks about Ra­van’s king­dom of Lanka and all its glo­ries — the first men­tion link­ing the two coun­tries. Devesh­war said, “ITC Colombo One will build on this her­itage and strengthen our re­la­tions even fur­ther. I am sure that this land­mark hotel will add a jewel to the crown of Sri Lanka’s hospi­tal­ity sec­tor.” An in­vest­ment of US$300 mil­lion has been made by the home­grown hotel com­pany in Sri Lanka, hint­ing at the im­por­tance of this mar­ket for In­dian hospi­tal­ity com­pa­nies.

There are sev­eral other play­ers look­ing to add or up­date their in­ven­to­ries here. In June last year, Sri Lankan Prime Min­is­ter Ranil Wick­remesinghe put to­gether a 13-mem­ber tourism task force that was chaired by the likes of (then) Tourism Min­istry Sec­re­tary Janaka Su­gath­adasa and (then) Sri Lanka Tourism Chair­man Paddy Withana. The team drafted a re­port that re­vealed some in­ter­est­ing find­ings and num­bers with re­gard to the hospi­tal­ity in­dus­try here. Cur­rently there are about 5,367 rooms in the range of three- to five-star hotel cat­e­gories. By 2021, Colombo will of­fer an ad­di­tional 4,135 rooms in the four- to five-star cat­e­gories. As per the re­port, new rooms are com­ing from Cin­na­mon Ho­tels and Re­sorts (800), Hy­att Ho­tels (559), Ma­rina Bay Sands (270), Next Ho­tels and Re­sorts (200), Radis­son Ho­tels (300), Ritz Carl­ton (200), Sher­a­ton Ho­tels and Re­sorts (306) and Four Sea­sons Ho­tels and Re­sorts (350).

While the added in­ven­tory will fur­ther aid tourism, it will also boost Colombo’s po­si­tion in cor­po­rate travel. The busi­ness of events is al­ready an im­por­tant con­trib­u­tor to tourism; ac­cord­ing to JLL Re­search, a pro­fes­sional ser­vices firm, around 65 per cent of Colombo’s hotel de­mand comes from MICE and busi­ness travel. Shangri-La Colombo has provided the city with the largest pil­lar-less ball­room in all of Sri Lanka, and as per Wright, this is an arena the hotel would like to fo­cus on. He says the prop­erty is al­ready suited to MICE, “thanks to its large-scale meet­ing fa­cil­i­ties and a 500-room in­ven­tory”. Colombo’s entire po­ten­tial as an ideal MICE city is still un­tapped — an as­pect that will progress with more func­tion spa­ces and hotel rooms as new ho­tels open up here.

WHAT TO SEE

Wake up early in the morn­ing and take a stroll on the prom­e­nade of Galle Face Green as you soak in the ris­ing sun and view of the In­dian Ocean. If you visit in the evening, you’ll ob­serve fam­i­lies and lo­cals tak­ing some time out from their sched­ules to re­lax. There is an ar­ray of food stalls sell­ing seafood such as fried shrimp and au­then­tic Sri Lankan items such as kottu roti, a dish made from roti and veg­eta­bles, egg and/or meat, and spices. Those in­ter­ested in Colombo’s di­verse cul­ture must visit the Bud­dhist Gan­garamya Tem­ple ( gan­gara­maya.com) that ex­hibits an eclec­tic mix of Sri Lankan, Thai, In­dian, and Chi­nese ar­chi­tec­ture. A mu­seum, a li­brary, a res­i­den­tial hall, a three-storeyed Pirivena (a monas­tic col­lege), ed­u­ca­tional halls and an alms hall are part of the tem­ple premises. Colombo’s colo­nial facet is best en­joyed walk­ing in its lanes and by-lanes by the Dutch Hos­pi­tal Shopping Precinct that’s con­sid­ered to be one of the old­est im­pe­rial struc­tures of the city. Orig­i­nally built as a hos­pi­tal by the Dutch, the build­ing was trans­formed into a shopping and din­ing precinct in 2011 with its his­toric ar­chi­tec­ture still in place. Renowned cu­ra­tor, re­searcher, pho­tog­ra­pher, wildlife en­thu­si­ast, and brain­child of “Colombo City Walks” ( colom­boc­i­ty­walks.blogspot.in), Mark Forbes or­gan­ises an in­ter­est­ing walk­ing tour that be­gins at this point. Over the next three hours, you walk through the streets, al­ley­ways, pas­sage­ways, shops, ho­tels, churches and build­ings of Fort (the cen­tral busi­ness dis­trict of Colombo in Sri Lanka) and the Pet­tah neigh­bour­hood. En route the tour, you will see trea­sures of Colombo’s im­pe­rial her­itage such as the old­est clock tower in Asia and the orig­i­nal colo­nial era em­blem of the HSBC bank. Those with more time on hand could visit Sri Lanka’s iconic lux­ury Ayurveda Spa Cey­lon ( spacey­lon.com) for a treat­ment or to take back its tra­di­tional and or­ganic well-be­ing prod­ucts.

Cur­rently there are about 5,367 rooms in the range of threeto five-star hotel cat­e­gories. By 2021, Colombo will of­fer an ad­di­tional 4,135 rooms in the four- to five-star cat­e­gories.

WHERE TO STAY Shangri-La Colombo

The 541-key Shangri-La Colombo over­looks Colombo’s Galle Face Green prom­e­nade. Deluxe Ocean View rooms, Deluxe Lake View rooms, Premier Bal­cony rooms and Premier Ocean View rooms, Ex­ec­u­tive suites, Spe­cial­ity suites and the Shangri-La suite are its ac­com­mo­da­tion types. Hori­zon Club Lake View and Hori­zon Club Ocean View rooms of­fer ac­cess to the Hori­zon Club Lounge. There are three restau­rants and two bars on the prop­erty in­clud­ing Shangri-La’s sig­na­ture Chi­nese restau­rant — Shang Palace, and its Sri Lankan tapas-style plates restau­rant — Kaema Sutra.

There is a 24-hour fit­ness cen­tre, a swim­ming pool, vi­tal­ity pools, steam rooms and CHI, The Spa. Meet­ing spa­ces sprawl across 3,500 sqm. shangri-la.com

Cin­na­mon Lake­side Colombo

The 346-key Cin­na­mon Lake­side Colombo is sit­u­ated by the Beira Lake, min­utes away from Galle Face Green. Su­pe­rior, Premier and Ex­ec­u­tive rooms, Cilantro suites and the Pres­i­den­tial suite are its ac­com­mo­da­tion types. The hotel has nine F&B out­lets in­clud­ing its all-day din­ing restau­rant — The Din­ing Room, 7° North (Mediter­ranean cui­sine), Long Feng (Chi­nese cui­sine) and Royal Thai (Thai cui­sine). Az­maara Spa, Power Drome fit­ness cen­tre and an out­door swim­ming pool are its leisure fa­cil­i­ties. The prop­erty houses two ball­rooms, three con­fer­ence venues, three board­room suites and an exclusive float­ing venue on the Beira Lake. Cin­na­mon Lake­side Colombo cu­rates a num­ber of ex­pe­ri­ences for its guests in­clud­ing na­ture walks and river cruises. cin­na­mon­ho­tels.com

Taj Sa­mu­dra

The 300-key Taj Sa­mu­dra is sit­u­ated on Galle Face Road and sprawls across 11 acres of man­i­cured gar­dens. It of­fers Deluxe rooms, Lux­ury rooms, Taj Club rooms, Ex­ec­u­tive suites, Deluxe suites, Lux­ury suites, Grand Lux­ury suites and the Tata suite as ac­com­mo­da­tion cat­e­gories. There are six F&B out­lets on the prop­erty in­clud­ing Navratna (In­dian cui­sine), Yumi (Ja­panese cui­sine), Golden Dragon (Chi­nese cui­sine) and Peb­bles (patis­serie). Taj Sa­mu­dra of­fers a choice of seven meet­ing rooms that can ac­com­mo­date up to 500 peo­ple in­clud­ing a 140-year-old Her­itage block with four halls de­pict­ing colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture. The prop­erty has an out­door swim­ming pool and Taj Ho­tels Re­sorts Sa­faris’ sig­na­ture Jiva Spa. tajho­tels.com

Pre­vi­ous page: Stat­ues at Gan­gara­maya Bud­dhist Tem­ple in front of Colombo’s sky­scrapers Left and right: View from Shangri-La Colombo’s Hori­zon Club Lounge; and the Colombo Har­bour

Clock­wise from top left: Eco­nomic His­tory Mu­seum, Colombo; ShangriLa Colombo; and lo­cal snacks at Galle Face Green

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