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By Mahendran Thiruvarangan
The current economic crisis has hit the country’s education sector severely. From pre-school children to undergraduates, students, teachers and non-academic staff attached to our educational system, have been affected in unprecedented ways. Our educational institutions are struggling to run academic activities due to frequent power-cuts and shortages of supplies, such as stationery and chemicals. Hostellers, and students boarded in private houses, face difficulties in meeting their daily needs, including food and transport. These financial constraints have resulted in a decline in students enrolled in some four-year special degree programmes this year at universities.
Students from low-income, working-class, and oppressed caste communities, those from poverty-stricken urban areas, fishing communities, and schools located in rural and plantation areas, and the war-affected North and East, bear a disproportionate burden of this crisis. As education is becoming alarmingly expensive for many, there is a serious threat to the idea of free public education as an avenue for social mobility and social justice. As we explore ways out, there is a need to reflect upon why our free education system has been hit in this manner and why we have been unable to take action to prevent students from being pushed out of the system.
Understanding the Crisis
The current economic crisis, and how it is impacting our education system, can be attributed to the mindless open-economic policies that Sri Lanka adopted in 1977 and the neoliberal mindset that governs our educational planning since. Today’s crisis is a visible, painful rupture of an already beleaguered system. The COVID pandemic only furthered its deterioration and has rendered the current moment in education an enormously challenging one.
The heavy toll the crisis is taking on our students is a manifestation of the longstanding negligence our education system has suffered at the hands of successive governments. While large amounts were spent on vanity projects, like the Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, the Lotus Tower and beautification of Colombo, not to mention expanding the country’s military apparatuses, the 2012 demand by FUTA to allocate 6% of the GDP for education has been ignored. Since the 1980s, the country has not invested enough in educational support systems, such as hostels for undergraduates, or in strengthening rural schools or upgrading more of them into schools with A/L classes, including the Science streams. These measures would have reduced the transportation and accommodation costs many of our students are struggling to bear today, amidst the crisis.
Because low-income, working-class families have been hit hardest, solutions to the economic crisis today should give a central place to redistribution. Within this framework, the way the state allocates funds for various initiatives should be justified on the basis of how those initiatives can help build a just, egalitarian society. This rationale should lead to prioritising the development of universal free education and healthcare. Our calls for a wealth tax and increased income taxes should highlight that a portion of the revenues that may be accrued via these measures must be utilised to reduce the inequalities, within the free education system.
Re-imagining Education during the Crisis
Under neoliberalism, we have been made to understand education as a timeless, ahistorical, contextless process divorced from the socio-economic realities that confront communities. Our curriculum and evaluation methods are, for the most part, inflexibly set in stone and heavily templatized. Neoliberalism has turned teachers into teaching-machines that lack the imagination to adopt curriculum practices that suit the conditions and needs of a particular historical moment.
At this juncture, there is a need to improvise short-term curriculum and evaluation practices that are intellectually meaningful and less costly for students. Even if teachers are ready to adopt such practices and make the necessary adjustments, our administrations do not show much interest in discussing these adjustments, let alone implement them. Even though universities, contra schools, are not bound by a common curriculum, centralised systems, within individual universities, informed by archaic rules and regulations, make adjustments that are attentive to the unprecedented socio-economic conditions, difficult if not impossible.
Education at a time of crisis should give a central place to the crisis itself in its content. The university curriculum should be flexible enough to bring the current politico-economic moment and its varied impact on different communities to the fore. Students and teachers should frame the educational processes that we are engaging in today as processes that should help us understand the crisis better and unpack the ideologies and policies undergirding it. These processes should encourage students and teachers to work with communities, trade unions, protestors and policy-makers in finding appropriate remedies. When students find their educational activities directly speaking to their everyday lives and the experiences of their communities, they will find education even during crisis an inspiring, liberating experience.
At both the school and tertiary levels, examinations and evaluation practices should be re-imagined. Standards should be broadened and diversified so that the education system embraces inclusiveness at a time when economic conditions are becoming more and more punishing towards the poor. At least within the school system, helping the students to cross the next hurdle should be prioritised. For instance, the number of optional questions given in an examination may be increased. The recent call by Ruwanthie de Chickera to pass all the students who sat for the G. C. E. O/L examinations that concluded last week should be heeded.
Our undergraduates, especially those who are in their penultimate and final years, have already spent more than the stipulated number of years at the university mainly due to the COVID crisis. In the case of many, their families can no longer support their education. Some feel an urgent need to find employment to support their families. There should be deliberations on how courses and assessment methods can be provisionally re-designed so that their graduation is not delayed further. While one has to be cautious about haphazard proposals made at University Faculty Boards to reduce the teaching hours, without adequate discussion, there can be more flexibility when it comes to the time spent on examinations. For instance, we should explore take-home exams or a combination of take-home exams and final papers as alternative to traditional end-of-semester examinations, which often take over a month to conduct for each batch at some universities. This may help students minimize the money spent on transportation as well.
The Ministry of Education should facilitate students and teachers to attend schools in their neighbourhood till there is improvement in the economic situation. Schools should initiate activities that can provide joy and relaxation to children instead of focusing too much on the traditional curriculum. They should also function as social spaces where students, parents and teachers can get together and chart mechanisms of survival and resilience. Students could take the lead in cultivating vegetables in their school gardens. School kitchens, established with the help of the wider community, may ensure that future generations get the necessary nutrients for their growth.
Shaping a Vision
The free education system, together with the free healthcare system, have kept our communities physically, psychologically and intellectually healthy and vibrant. Despite its many flaws, the education system has contributed to democratizing our society. Even our collective resistance to the failed economic policies of ruling classes today is informed by the democratic consciousness that our free education has imbued in us. The undergraduates of the public university system have taken a lead role in the ongoing protests, demanding a system change. We need the free education system to be alive and dynamic now more than ever.
How do we make the education system resilient even as we battle everyday problems? In what ways can higher-resourced schools help those with less facilities? In what ways can strong overseas alumni associations help economically marginalized students from not just their own schools but also other schools? In what ways can schools and universities work together in overcoming the crisis? How can local communities support the schools in their areas in the latter’s efforts to address the challenges they face? These are questions that we need to discuss urgently.
Neoliberalism has made us view education as a quest geared towards individual success at the cost of social wellbeing. It has discouraged us from exploring alliances and solidarities that can help us overcome challenging situations together through redistribution. The crisis we are facing today within and outside the education sector should make us understand that our socio-economic lives are interconnected and that we are dependent on each other for survival. The support systems and redistributive mechanisms that we build today can also provide the foundations for our economic and educational vision in the long-run, beyond this crisis. Let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity to remove the economic, social and psychological stranglehold that neoliberalism has placed over us and imagine an egalitarian future.
|(Mahendran Thiruvarangan is a Senior Lecturer attached to the Department of Linguistics and English at the University of Jaffna)
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
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Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
I am most thankful to Le Meridien hotel company for the invaluable exposure they provided me over the years. Le Meridien was very generous in developing my international hotel management career. During my two stints with them in the 1980s and in the 1990s, Le Meridien invested the time and funds to send me for training in France and job experiences in their five-star hotels in different countries.
Between 1986 and 2001, I stayed at over 20 Le Meridien Hotels in a dozen countries. In addition to being a Director of Food & Beverage, and General Manager, my other brief roles in these Le Meridien sponsored travels were: shadow general manager and management observer. I was also the quality assurance ‘mystery guest,’ or simply a guest observer during corporate sales trips, general manager conferences with Le Meridien corporate teams from Paris and London, and on holiday.
Soon after my first annual performance review as the Director of Food and Beverage of Le Galadari Meridien hotel in Colombo, my boss, the General Manager of the hotel – Jean Pierre Kaspar agreed to send me to Singapore for Le Meridien exposure. I knew that he saw some potential in me as a future international hotelier, although in the mid-1980s there were hardly any non-European expatriate managers with Le Meridien. Most of them were French.
My main assignment in Singapore was to be a Management Observer at Le Meridien in fashionable Orchard Road. Having spent two weeks at the nearby Goodwood Park Hotel in 1982, as the guest executive chef for a Sri Lankan food festival, I was familiar with Singapore. In 1987, I was amazed by how much Singapore had advanced in five years. I shadowed the Director of Food & Beverage of the hotel while being a silent observer at all meetings and events he attended. I spent some time at all their restaurants and special banquets.
I also spent some time observing their sister hotel – Le Meridien Changi located very close to my favourite airport in the world – Changi Airport. It was the first occasion that I was exposed to the management of an airport hotel. Most of the guests at this hotel stayed for short periods and the service offered had to be faster than city centre five-stars. As there was not much to see around the hotel, the few guests who stayed longer than one night usually took taxis to down town Singapore.
Compared to Colombo, Singapore had a much more active and modern night club scene being around two years ahead in nightclub trends compared to us. I wanted to duplicate some ideas as I was working on upgrading certain aspects of Colombo 2000 night club. Towards the end of my assignment there I invited the lead singer and the manager of our main band, Sohan Weerasinghe, to join me in Singapore. Our wives joined us and spent most of their time shopping while Sohan and I visited many night clubs and also recruited a Singaporean female singer to perform at Colombo 2000 on a limited engagement.
Prior to my wife and I travelling to Thailand in 1988 on a vacation, I arranged our stay and a short ‘unofficial’ guest observer period at Le Meridien Bangkok. By then I had realized that a lot can be learnt by simply observing different hotel operations, although many hoteliers did not do so. I was familiar with Bangkok. In 1979, Bangkok was the first city outside Sri Lanka that I visited, when I stayed at the then famous Hotel Narai. In 1993, through a personal contact, I arranged another guest observer period for myself at the Bangkok Hilton.
After spending time at the Grand Palace and visiting the Floating Markets by boat, our tour guide had arranged an after dinner ‘Bangkok by Night’ tour for us. “I will meet you at the hotel lobby in two hours. I will take you to a unique restaurant for dinner, before the ‘night’ tour,” he promised to keep us excited. We found Thai people to be very friendly and respectful. The only things we did not like about Bangkok were the traffic and the humidity. After a refreshing shower we were ready for our adventure evening in Bangkok.
During a 45-minute car ride, our guide, Narong was proud to talk about the restaurant to which he was taking us for dinner. “Tum Nak Thai is the largest restaurant in the world. It is in an eight-acre park just outside Bangkok. It is owned by a cousin of our king. You will love the food, service, entertainment and everything else! They serve 6,000 dinners every day!” he boasted. Narong was telling us the truth.
Sitting there and looking around the beautifully landscaped and well-lit gardens of Tum Nak Thai, I understood how they handled such a large operation. They basically had six identical restaurants and six satellite kitchens led by six managers, but with the same menu. What baffled me was how they were able to market the complex so successfully to ensure a full-house for every meal.
The tropical trees, flowers, water ponds and lighting in the gardens all enhanced the ambiance. Apart from the musicians and dancers we were well entertained also by the servers/runners. They moved at lightning speed while balancing heavy trays of food and beverage. They were on roller blades and used exclusive wooden corridors, making exciting sounds, as they acrobatically moved to our amazement.
“Congratulations, Chandi! Le Meridien head office in Paris and the regional office for Asia in Singapore have approved my recommendation to send you to Institut International Meridien in France”, Mr. Jean Pierre Kaspar happily announced. It was soon after he had finished my second annual performance appraisal.
I knew that Le Meridien chose a dozen divisional heads from their hotels around the world for an advanced program at Le Institut, twice a year. It was called: ‘Séminaire de Meridien Management’. I also knew that chosen managers had the potential for promotion as General Managers in time to come. I was proud to be the first from Sri Lanka to be sent for that special hotel management, education program.
However, there was one thing that I did not know at that time: that Mr. Kaspar had spent something more than my total annual salary at Le Galadari Meridien, to educate me on the Le Meridien management concept in Paris and in Tours, where the main campus was located. After France, he had arranged for me to spend some time in London at Le Meridien Piccadilly, as a management observer. He did this by contacting a friend of his from France, who managed that hotel.
I arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1988, with great optimism. The 12 delegates were accommodated at the 1,000-room Le Meridien Montparnasse in
Air France established Le Meridien Hotels in 1972. The chain’s hotels initially offered accommodation mainly for Air France flight crews and passengers in their major airport hub cities around the world. The first Le Meridien property was a 1,000-room hotel in the heart of Paris, the Hotel Meridien Paris, today known as Le Méridien Etoile. Our welcome sessions with the President and senior Vice Presidents of the company were held at Le Méridien Etoile.
Born in Paris during an era of glamorous travel, Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts always celebrated cultures around the world through the distinctly European spirit of savouring the good life. Le Méridien’s engaging mid-century designed spaces coupled with chic signature programs putting a playful twist on art, coffee, sparkling cocktails, summer, family, and inspire creative-minded travellers to explore the world in style. I was happy to immerse myself in that unique hospitality culture.
LE MERIDIEN INSTITUT IN TOURS
After a couple of days in Paris we were taken by train to Tours. The beautiful colours of the falling leaves made that two-hour ride very pleasant. During the training program, we all lived at Le Meridien Tours which was a smaller regional hotel. We all became good friends and kept in touch for years after our training. As a university town, Tours was a good location for our management studies.
Once a Gallic-Roman settlement, Tours possesses one of the largest amphitheatres of the Roman Empire, the Tours Amphitheatre. Tours is also a traditional gateway for exploring the chateaux of the Loire Valley region. Major landmarks include the Cathédrale Saint-Gatien, whose flamboyant Gothic facade is flanked by towers with 12th-century bases and Renaissance tops. In 1988, the population of Tours was around 130,000.
I simply loved that program at Le Institut. It did not cover much about hotel operations, but the professors covered in depth, hotel finance, hospitality marketing, psychology and organizational behaviour. Our French professors were knowledgeable, friendly and one of them also liked to join us in pranks.
We enhanced our knowledge of French cuisine, wines, cheeses, service and culture during our daily, extra-curricular activities. Every evening we visited a different winery and a different gourmet French restaurant. Every weekend we did tourist things — going on tours and visiting chateaux. While gaining valuable knowledge, we also gained too many calories! When my wife saw me in London, after my training in France, she was surprised. “Chandi, you have put on at least ten pounds during your time in France!” she said.
When I arrived at Le Meriden Piccadilly in London I was warmly welcomed by the General Manager — Michel Novatin. He then entrusted the hotel’s Director of Food and Beverage — Olivier Louis — to look after me and fully expose me to his division. “I have heard great things about you from my boss — Jean Pierre Kaspar,” I said to Olivier. His response was, “Ah, I am a fan of Jean Pierre! I worked under him in my hometown – Paris — when I commenced my career as an apprentice in a pastry kitchen. He was the Food & Beverage Manager and he promoted me to the Food and Beverage Controller.”
Olivier then invited me to attend a celebration: “Come with me to a very special event with all the managers in my division,” he said. Like many five-star London hotels in the 1980s, their food and beverage operation maintained very high standards and proudly ran an operation which added value and prestige to the overall hotel product. However, the profits were in rooms. Le Meriden Piccadilly Hotel’s fine-dining French Restaurant ‘Oak Room’ had earned a Michelin star, an honour unique to a hotel restaurant at that time.
The managers were celebrating making 1% departmental profits in the Food and Beverage division, for the first time. Having done in-depth research on the Food and Beverage operations of all 16 five-star London hotels in 1984 for my master’s degree dissertation at the University of Surrey, I was not surprised by their low level of profits.
After sharing some champagne with me, the Executive Chef, Maître d’hôtel/Restaurant Managers, Olivier asked: “How about your Food and Beverage operation in Sri Lanka? In the midst of a civil war, do you make any departmental profits at all?” When I said, ‘Yes”, he was surprised, and was quick to ask me: “What percentage?”
When I said “30%”, there was pin-drop silence. The next day after having checked the group statistics, Olivier congratulated me. “Chandi, in your absence from Colombo, your team has made a record 31% Food and Beverage departmental profits for the past month!” Then he shook my hand and said, “I think that instead of you shadowing me, I should shadow you, to learn from you about making good profits!” We both laughed.
Olivier Louis was friendly, hard-working, smart and ambitious. I knew at once that he would do very well as an international hotelier. In 1996, after a 24-year career with Le Meridien in several hotels around the globe as the General Manager, Olivier left the company after it was sold by Air France to the largest British hotel company – Forte PLC. He then settled in Dubai, UAE, working for Kerzener International Limited – a leading international developer and operator of destination resorts, ultra-luxury hotels and residences and innovative entertainment and gaming experiences.
Today, Olivier is the Managing Director of two ultra-luxury iconic resorts owned by the royal family of UAE – One&Only Royal Mirage and The Palm. In 2016, he won the prestigious ‘Best Hotelier’ award at the 17th Worldwide Hospitality Awards event. I gained a lot by spending time with this legendary hotelier, during his mid-career, in 1988.
BACK IN COLOMBO
I was happy to be back in Colombo. I was also eager to share all that I had learned at the Institut International Meridien, as well as at the four Le Meriden hotels in France and England, with members of my team. Soon after my return we were busy with Christmas and New Year’s Eve events. I delivered a series of seminars based on my new learning after the festive season in early 1989.
Prior to my departure to Europe, Mr. Kaspar asked me to be ready for a promotional transfer to a Le Meridien hotel in another country as an expatriate Director of Food and Beverage, within a year. After two years of not filling this post, we decided to fill the vacancy of my deputy with a succession plan. I asked: “What type of person do you want me to hire?” Mr. Kaspar said: “I want someone just like Chandi!”
Before my trip to France, I recommended someone who was much better than me – Lalit De Silva — as my deputy. Lalit was three years older than I and a year senior to me at Ceylon Hotel School. Unlike me, he had won many academic, excellence awards including a two-year scholarship to West Germany.
Lalit was equally fluent in French and German, and spent most of his career specializing in Food and Beverage operations. At Le Galadari Meridien, Lalit understudied me, with the understanding that he would succeed me within a year. He was supported by our Banquet Manager – Ananda Warakawa.
MORE ADVENTURES WITH LE MERIDIEN
In 1994, as part of a cost-cutting measure, Air France sold its controlling interest in Meridien Hotels Inc., to the UK-based Forte PLC (my employer at that time). The French government wishing to keep Le Meridien French-owned, favoured a bid by Accor Hotels. However, with some support from the European Union, Forte was eventually successful in taking over Le Meridien. Having realized that Le Meridien maintained very high standards, Forte upgraded a selected few Forte Grand hotels and re-branded those as Le Meridien.
After Air France, the ownership of Le Meridien moved hands to five different companies – Forte in UK in 1994, Granada in UK (after a hostile takeover) in 1996, Nomura in Japan in 2001, Starwood in USA in 2005, and Marriott in USA in 2016. All five owners of Le Meridien in the post Air France era from 1994 to 2023, maintained the unique French style of Le Meridien.
In 1997, I was appointed as the General Manager of Le Meridien Jamaica Pegasus, the largest business hotel and the premier five-star hotel in the Jamaican capital city – Kingston. This hotel was previously a Forte Grand hotel and I led the re-branding to Le Meridien. In that process, the training I received at Institut International Meridien in 1988 became a great asset. For the next four years I stayed at many Le Meridien hotels for different purposes.
Prior to re-opening Jamaica Pegasus as Le Meridien, I took most members of my management team to Le Meridien New Orleans, USA, for a week. There, each of us shadowed our counterparts. After working very hard during the re-branding period, I spent a memorable, one-week holiday with my elder son, Marlon, at Le Meridien Guadalupe in the French West Indies. That hotel was a charming resort and was very different from all other Le Meridien hotels that I had experienced.
In 1998, when Marlon and I went to Japan in search of our martial art connections (Marlon earned his Karate black belt when he was 15), we stayed at Le Meridien Tokyo, which was the most expensive Le Meridien I experienced. I stayed at the Famous Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel in Toronto, Canada, a couple of times, attending general manager’s regional meetings and shadowing the General Manager. I was identified to become the General Manager of that great hotel in 1999, but to my chagrin, that did not materialize.
As an occasional visitor to corporate office in London, I continued to stay at a few Le Meridien Hotels there – Piccadilly, Westbury, Waldorf, Heathrow and Gatwick. During corporate sales trips to USA, I loved staying at Watergate Le Meridien in Washington D.C. and Le Parker Meridien in New York.
In October 1998, Le Meridien considered me as the hotel opening General Manager for Kathmandu, Nepal. When that project was delayed, Le Meridien was surprised when I requested two years of sabbatical leave to complete my doctoral studies. After some negotiation, they approved the leave with one condition – I have to accept any post they would offer me after the two years.
During that two-year period, Le Meridien continued with complimentary accommodation for me at Le Meridien Hotels when I travelled to attend academic conferences etc. in Georgetown (Guyana), London, Dubai and Toronto. In return, my wife (who was also a hotelier for some time) and I did comprehensive quality assurance mystery shopper assignments for my general manager colleagues of Le Meridien hotels in Dubai and Toronto.
After my two-year sabbatical leave, Le Meridien offered me a choice of two excellent posts – General Manager of a 750-room Le Meridien Hotel by the Red Sea, Egypt, or Regional Training Director for South Asia. By then I had decided to continue in academia, and settle with my family in Canada. Therefore, I did not accept either of the offers. I reluctantly left my favourite international hotel company. After 23 years, I remain friends with a few of my former Le Meridien colleagues.
In a world of standard operational international hotels, with its unique style and class, Le Meridien holds a special place in the world of hospitality and hoteliering. Given the generous support in my career development, Le Meridien also holds a very special place in my heart. Merci beaucoup, Le Méridien, and Monsieur Jean Pierre Kaspar!
Let us now return to’ my role in the newly created Ministry of State. The President and my new Minister Anandatissa de Alwis had a special interest in tourism. As Minister of State, JRJ had presented the Tourism Development Act to establish the Ceylon Tourist Board. He appointed his brother Harry as Chairman of the Tourist Board to signal its importance.
Anandatissa was his Permanent Secretary at that time. Mrs. Bandaranaike as PM had also promoted tourism during the 1965-1970 period and appointed Dharmasiri Senanayake as the Chairman of the Tourist Board. He was a dynamic leader and we inherited an outstanding staff who wanted to take tourism to a new level.
JRJ had appointed Chandra Soysa, an Accountant, as the Chairman. He had good connections with Germany which was a top target for getting tourists to Sri Lanka. The Managing Director was Thahir and his assistant was Nimalasiri de Silva who had left the diplomatic service to handle the Board’s public relations. We had three outstanding officials who had been recruited by Dharmasiri and had performed well to put Sri Lanka on the tourist map.
They were Samaradiwakara who supervised the European market while Lakshman Ratnapala, who had worked with me as a Press Officer, handled the American sector. Navaz was based in France and we accredited local agencies to represent us in Japan and India. What was significant was that tourism was driven by the private sector while the Board played a supporting role.
No five star hotels had come up in Colombo for almost a century. With the impending Non-Aligned Movement’s meeting in Colombo, the State Trading Corporation had financed the construction of a brand new five star hotel which was to be managed by the Oberoi Group of India. This was the Lanka Oberoi which was a state of the art hotel designed by a top American architectural Company.
The other was the ‘Colombo Inter Continental’ begun during the tenure of JRJ as Minister in 1965. The strategy of the Board was to develop Sri Lanka as a ‘sea, sand and sun’ destination that could compete on the mass tourism market. Unlike our competitors Bali and Thailand, as long haul destinations, we could offer wild life and culture as extra incentives.
Accordingly the Board had set up its first resort area in Bentota where land and all other facilities were offered on a ‘plug and play’ basis along the Bentota river and estuary, to both local and foreign investors. John Keells were the first to hire Geoffrey Bawa to redesign the old Bentota Rest House into the five star Bentota Beach Hotel it is today.
This started a trend which transformed Asian architecture and made Bawa a famous name among modern building circles. Aitken Spence followed with the Ahungalle hotel which has now been rebranded as Heritance Ahungalla. A Tea Company which owned Elephant House remodeled the old Hikkaduwa Rest House with a French architect but was not able to achieve the aesthetic excellence of a Bawa designed hotel.
Later it was sold to John Keells which was fast emerging as a leader in in-bound tourism. An amazing development then took place. Around our main destinations by the sea a large number of middle and small level hotels, restaurants, batik shops and grocery stores sprang up which opened up avenues of employment and income for local investors and workers.
Bawa’s preference for local Batiks, handicrafts, metal work and antiques for interior decoration led to the birth of flourishing small enterprises which later even supplied urban house builders. As I had served as an official in Galle and Kalutara districts I was able to iron out many practical problems that arose. For instance a major drag on investment was the pattern of land ownership in the south. Most of the private lands by the sea were so fragmented that nobody could get a clear title. Without a clear title local banks would not lend money for hotel construction.
For instance in the Balapitiya area there were more than two hundred ‘pangu’ holders for each small block of land. To make matters worse many of the share owners had migrated to Colombo. I particularly remember that the Ahungalle construction was halted due to this problem. After discussing with the Attorney General I arranged for the Tourist Board to acquire these lands and then transfer them with clean title to the investors.
The investor had to deposit the money in a state account to pay the claimants. This solution worked very well and banks were provided with clean titles which enabled them to speedily process loan applications. It also so happened that many of the officers who handled the tourist sector for the big companies were ex-planters who were displaced by the takeover of estates by Mrs. B’s government.
They were talented workaholics and I was able to move with them both officially and socially. Ken Balendra, `Roti’ Sivaratnam, G.C. Wickremasinghe, D. Perera, C.P. de Silva and George Ondaatje were the indefatigable pioneers of our modern tourist industry. We had links with the directors of TUI, Neckermann, Wintertour, Accor, Club Mediterranee and many other global travel agencies.
Accordingly hotels and shops sprang up along the southern coastline and tourism became one of our biggest money spinners in addition to beautifying many towns which were earlier in a shabby state. Bawa and his followers were trend setters in hotel architecture.
While Bentota was a well-planned tourist resort, Hikkaduwa which was about 20 kilometers from there grew as a natural resort of a different model. From the earlier days Hikkaduwa with its coral reefs was a destination favoured by local travelers. Its Rest House was a favourite holiday destination of the Colombo elite led by R.G. Senanayake. With the expansion of tourism it developed as a low cost resort sought after by young western tourists.
This was a special time which saw the growth of ‘Flower Power’. It was the age of the Beatles, Maharishis, soft drugs and fancy hair and dress styles. It was the heyday of a counter culture and Hikkaduwa, like Goa and Kathmandu, were on the must visit list of young backpackers. As Secretary I would often visit Goa and Kathmandu and see the energy in this new market which fortunately our Tourist Board recognized and supported even though the Colombo elite was aghast.
In those days Royal Nepali Airlines was the only air link between Kathmandu and Colombo. Many tourists would visit the Himalayas and then come to Hikkaduwa for its blue sea waters. The flight was so full of stoned backpackers that we called it the ‘Ganja Express’. In spite of frequent spraying of perfumes the inside of the plane reeked of Ganja.
There is a great sequel to my experiences of Hikkaduwa and Unawatuna. Later in time when I worked for the UN I would visit many Ministries in Germany, France and the UK. The front desk would ask for my passport and when I produced my Sri Lankan passport there were so many compliments paid by the then three piece suited officials. The secret was that they had long ago visited Hikkaduwa as young hippies and had an enchanting time in our country.
They were models of middle class respectability now, but had not forgotten the good times they had by the sea at Hikkaduwa. Sri Lanka was entering the world tourism map at a fast clip.
With the dynamism shown by the Tourist Board and the local private sector, tourism in Sri Lanka improved by leaps and bounds. It is strange but true that at that time the -number of arrivals here were greater than the arrivals in India with all its attractions. The main reason was that internal air travel in India was costly and inefficient. It took days to go from one tourist site to another.
Travel Agents in India looked on our developments as a model which could be recommended to their Government. This was shown by the decision of the Indian Travel Agents Association to hold their annual general meeting in Colombo. The main organizer of this meeting, Sita Travels of India, told me that their idea was to showcase Sri Lankan progress in order to convince their Government to follow suit.
Accordingly Mr. Sharma the Indian Minister of Tourism was also present when our Minister Anandatissa delivered the keynote speech. Ananda was easily one of the best speakers in our time and he held the audience spellbound. Biki Oberoi of the Oberoi group, which then managed the Colombo Oberoi, seconded Ananda’s pitch for our tourism development plan and the Indian delegates, who spent another couple of days dining and wining in Colombo and loaded with goodies imported under our free economy, went back delighted. They wanted to influence their Minister to be more like his Sri Lankan counterpart. Sure enough India launched a concerted Tourism drive and is now one of the largest tourist destinations in the world.
This event was followed up by the Sri Lankan Exhibition held in the Commonwealth building in London. Our exhibition was a major event in the London events calendar. We exhibited arts, crafts, investment opportunities, hotels, tourism and many other aspects of our history and culture. It ran for about two weeks and had the backing of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Offices.
The Tourist board had its own promotional stalls and evening receptions with Kandyan and low country dancing. I managed to persuade Arthur Clarke to join our delegation and he gave a well-attended lecture in the Commonwealth lecture hall, on his experiences in Sri Lanka. He also gave numerous interviews and his well-known enthusiasm for his country of domicile gave a boost to the exhibition.
Our man in Europe, Samaradiwakara and our High Commissioner in the UK, Murthy combined with European Travel Agents to boost our image as a growing tourist destination. By this time we were recognized by the trade as a promising travel centre for long haul tourist traffic from Europe.
Another advantage of participating in the Sri Lanka exhibition was that we could negotiate with organizers of seasonal charter flights which would bring large contingents of tourists during the summer and winter.
This was a great success and the hotel and travel sector was delighted. But we had to fend off the objections of Air Lanka which found that the cheaper tickets and more accessible airports of the charters were eating into their revenue. But that was partly due to their own lethargy and the new developments promoted by us made them work harder and review their ticketing policies about which our own expatriates were complaining.
I negotiated with the charter carriers and persuaded them to block book some tickets on regular Air Lanka (AL) flights, which naturally delighted AL because they could show sales without working hard to win clients on their own steam. Fortunately at that time AL was represented by General Sepala Attygalle who understood the primary economic need to increase tourist traffic. That could not be sacrificed for an airline which, being state owned, was now intent on going on an employment spree from among the children of influential in Colombo.
After some time they began to look to the Treasury for subsidies. It was such a drain on the Treasury that we had to later negotiate a partnership with Emirates Airlines. Unfortunately it was terminated by a stupid politically motivated decision and the national airline again lapsed into near bankruptcy. The inefficient national airline and other state corporations are the bane of the Sri Lankan economy which is dragged down by them year after year.
The Taj Samudra
A major milestone in our tourism development was the building of the Taj Samudra Hotel. All our projections from the Board’s statistical division, which was headed by my university senior, H.M.S. Samaranayake, who later became Chairman of the Tourist Board, showed that India will be a major ‘catchment area’ for Sri Lankan tourism. This necessitated a series of follow up decisions to make it a reality.
Establishing Indian brands here was a first step. True enough Oberoi was in Colombo. But they were here on a management contract. Anyway at that time Taj with its flagship Taj Bombay, was the gold standard in the hospitality business. In the words of Biki Oberoi “We are streetwalkers; they are call girls”.
One day not long after the Travel Agents Colombo meeting a high level management group from Taj Bombay met me in office. They told me that their Directors had decided to expand their footprint to other countries and were thinking of Colombo as a first step. Up to now Taj Hotels had not moved out of India and they were exploring possibilities of coming to Sri Lanka because this country was promoting an open economy.
After further exchange of pleasantries they asked for a two acre block from the seven acres in Galle Face which were then occupied by the Fisheries Ministry, the state owned Samudra Hotel and a section of the Tourist Board. I knew that this block of seven acres was easily one of the best locations in South Asia because it faced the Galle face ‘maidan’ and a vast expanse of sea. On one side was the historic Galle Face Hotel and on the other was the old Parliament.
If it was cut up into small blocks as some businessmen were demanding, one of the best sites in Asia would be destroyed forever. The Taj representatives asked for two acres. I told them I would give them seven acres. They could hardly believe their ears because, as they told me later, if they asked for two acres from Indian bureaucrats they would invariably be given only one.
I then took my decision to Anandatissa who fully agreed with my thinking that it should be retained as one contiguous block. He asked me to inform the President and get his consent. I met JRJ and told him about my views. He asked me only one question – “Are they the Tatas?” When I said it was a Tata Group venture he immediately agreed. When the news of approval was conveyed to the Taj board they were so impressed by the speed of our decision making that they not only decided on Colombo but also commissioned the building of their best hotel save the BombayTaj in Sri Lanka.
A new company was set up with a 60:40 share ownership between the Taj group and Sri Lankan investors. the Indian Reserve Bank then put a spoke in the wheel. They refused the transfer of funds from India as they had stringent foreign exchange regulations. Normally that would have spelt the end of the project. But a way out was found by us by making a pitch for investment by Non Resident Indians [NRI] to whom the Taj name was magic.
We launched an advertising campaign for local investors through the stock exchange. The offer was oversubscribed and the construction work on the hotel began in no time. This was a fortuitous beginning because communal riots started in Colombo in 1983 and hotel building in the country was unfortunately curtailed.
We had plans for many more facilities as Sri Lanka was now getting global recognition as an attractive destination. There was to be a string of modern hotels along the coastline. Charles Correa, the famous Indian architect designed another city hotel along the Beira Lake to be managed by the Sheraton Group. John Keells had negotiated with an Italian travel company to build a state of the art sea side resort at Unawatuna.
All were abandoned due to the communal riots of 1983. During my stay in Paris I had promoted a major travel group to visit Sri Lanka and build a five star hotel. In July 1983 while the rioting was going on they called me from their hotel room saying that they could witness the mayhem on Galle road and were getting back to Paris that night itself.
After Taj we could not build hotels for a long time because potential investors, like my French friends, shied away. Our strategic decision to retain the seven acres as a block has ensured that we have a manicured garden in the Taj which has beautified the cityscape. The presence of the Taj Hotel is a powerful impetus for attracting tourists from India which is now our main catchment area.
As I now drive past the Galle road along the Galle Face green which has now seen the building of several five star hotels, I reminisce happily about how it all happened and how I helped in creating a green zone in the heart of Colombo. At that time there was not much agitation about the environment and the common sense of our authorities had prevailed. Indeed we can be proud that due to the planning of the Tourist Board at that time large swathes of our coastline have been retained and beautified by the larger hotels.
The country owes a debt of gratitude to Geoffrey Bawa and other architects who placed the environment in the centre of their hotel designs. It is our special legacy to Asian architecture. Similarly we should thank Arthur Clarke, Rodney Jonklaas, Mike Wilson and their associates for calling for the preservation of our marine heritage. For years they called for a stop to the illicit destruction of our coral reefs. Local politicians did not support those initiatives. But they paid a heavy price when the Tsunami lashed into the villages where the coral barrier had been excavated to make slaked lime.
Akurala village, close to where illicit coral mining was at its worst, disappeared forever. Unfortunately a south bound train passing Akurala was also washed away and hundreds of innocent travelers lost their lives. The situation was so bad that a special office with Registrars sent from Colombo had to be established in Akurala to issue emergency death certificates. Bodies were not found and certificates had to be issued on hearsay. Without hotels, the coral reefs, a national treasure, would have long gone with the complicity of ignorant local politicians and their party leaders.
by Ernest Macintyre
Bali, named by Trip Advisor as the world’s top destination in its Traveller’s Choice award, in January 2021, is the only Hindu-majority province in Indonesia, with 86.9% of the population being of this ancient Indian way of life and death commonly called religion. That is why a Balinese funeral, of rich or poor is conducted as a complex ritual of “theatrical” process by people who have to be paid as “performers.
I knew nothing of all this, when in 1990 with a few friends who had also migrated to Australia, we took a trip to relax and enjoy the famous pleasure resort of Bali.
We stayed at the Kuta Beach Hotel. One morning as I strolled around aimlessly in the main reception area, I happened to see a notice inside a glass fronted cupboard which immediately held my attention.It stated that on the next day there would be a funeral ceremony in the village area of close by Ubud. Tourists, for the payment of fifty American dollars each, would be incorporated into the funeral process. Arrangements were to be at the hotel reception desk.
I walked to the reception area and told the manager that I was interested. He called me into his office to explain this unusual offer to tourists. I reproduce from memory a reconstruction of what he said.
” You see , these funerals are in very poor families. They don’t have the money for what has to be done at a funeral. So, they even keep the bodies in some place, till they can collect the money for the religious ceremonies for the funeral, and the bodies start decaying. This is in an island that earns so much from tourism and the hotel business .So some hotel owners got this plan going. They knew that today’s tourists are very different from long ago. Those days they came from their cold countries just to soak in the sun, lying on our beaches, and drinking cool beer. Today’s tourists are not only younger but very interested to get to know about the country they are touring. The hotel managers thought the religious ceremonies of the funerals would attract tourists. You see sir, the religious ceremonies for the dead, cannot be avoided whether families are rich or poor. They have to be done for the blessings and the future lives of the dead. These sad ceremonies are performed by hired men and women, they have to be paid. They are acting, but they also have sympathy for the dead “.
My mind went back to the crying women at Negombo funerals with their elusive transition from acting to feeling.
“The plan has worked, even five or six tourists each paying fifty American dollars is more than enough for these poor families to have the funeral ceremonies”.
I interjected, “Do the tourists go also to the funerals of other families, richer people?”
“No. They will not allow tourists to take part, the poor have the tourists because they need them.”
“Are you saying that we would be intruders, if not for our money?”
“No, not at all. We have reports that the sensitive tourists who go to these poor funerals integrate so humanly that the families of the dead feel their joining to be a blessing “
“I will join tomorrow “, I decided. After I made my payment he said, ” There are a few things to tell you”
” The dead person is a middle-aged woman, whose husband had died many years earlier. She is survived by two young daughters.”
He said that a van organized by the hotel would arrive at 8.30 am the next morning. There would be the driver and an interpreter. There are six of you, Americans and British. I would be the only Asian.
We would be taken to a room in the hotel and there given a white cloth to wear over our western clothes. Also, a large white shirt without a collar to wear over our upper body. The interpreter will then make some small coloured marking on each forehead. This costume we cannot make compulsory, but so far, all tourists have agreed. Those tourists who want to partake in the funerals are today’s tourists who see death as part of the lives they are touring to experience.
“How does this interpreter work” I asked.
I was coming to that. The other five who will be your companions tomorrow morning, had been told that at the funeral they will be requested to just speak one or two lines in English. All the other five have agreed and the lines they will speak have already been sent to the interpreter, who is a Balinese graduate, in English, from University of Sydney. He will translate these to Bahasa Indonesia, and at the funeral after you speak, he will explain to the mourners in their language.
By doing this the tourists become a part of the mourning people.
For Asian tourists the tourist board have requested that the say their lines in their Asian language and tell the interpreter what it means, and he will convey it to the mourners.
This unnerved me. I was an Asian but a deeply colonized one. My ability with Sinhala and Tamil was colloquial and scanty.
I spent the rest of the morning in my room, working out what lines I would recite at the funeral, so that the hotel manager could send it to the interpreter with my English translation. I first thought of the Tamil ” Anndandu thorum alludu perandalum maandevar varuvaro?”, which roughly conveyed is ” You may cry and roll on the ground, but the dead will never come back” or a more sophisticated transformation , may be Hamlet’s “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”
I abandoned this for it had depressing closure, it seemed to run against the openness of Hindu philosophy.After about an hour I settled on a simple line in Sinhala, which said enough and remained open as in Buddhism.
I went down and handed it to the office manager.The others in our Sri Lankan group had already made other arrangements, so I would not have their company at the funeral.
On the way back from the manager’s office, I met Aoife Maoilriain a young Irish woman, I had got to know in the hotel. She too was one of the other five who would be “touring” the funeral tomorrow. Aoife was a teacher at the University of Dublin. She was very keen and deeply interested about this unexpected part of tourism, she told me. And also sad she said, for she had planned to visit the village area around Ubud, and now she’ll be doing it in very different circumstances.
Tomorrow morning came. They were all in the van, clothed in the white native costumes and the markings on their foreheads. The interpreter, who now had studied all the words they would say, ready to convey to the Balinese mourners, greeted them. Soon they were at the funeral location. It was a small hut, with a compound in front. The benches and chairs for the congregation, which had been hired with the money from the six tourists, were in this compound. The two daughters sat separate from the other mourners, and in front of them a low platform on which their mother’s body lay, covered in white cloth. Only her face was visible. The folk priest started the proceedings.
The time came for the six tourists to offer their words. The first, John Hoskins, had adapted lines from John Donne’s old English poem.
“Each human’s death diminishes me,
Though a tourist I’m also mankind.Therefore, I do not ask to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for me.”
The interpreter explained to the congregation.
It was then my turn, and I made my one-line Sinhala offering. The Sinhala I knew was colloquial and very little, but I had been in the cast of Henry Jayasena’s
“Hunuwataya Kathawa” for seven years, before I migrated to Australia. I played the drunken priest who dominated a funeral scene, and had learnt, rote like, to speak lines from Sinhala literature. As if accomplished in Sinhala I delivered the line . The single short English line which the accomplished Jayasena had translated from ” The Caucasian Chalk Circle”.
” Maage dhayabara avamugal amuthani, minisunge irananame monatharang vividhakaravia hakidha, ekek marrie akige rudhria seelata wela, dhoo denna unusuma, watagena andanawa.”– “My dear funeral guests, how varied are the fates of humans, one laid down with her blood now cold, two daughters weeping, warmly, around her.”
The interpreter conveyed to the mourners, the openness of the short line, that invites ponder.
The last of our six tourist speakers was the Irish woman I mentioned earlier. I looked at Aoife Maoilriain just as she was about to give her offering. The woman was visibly in a state of great feeling, as she rose from her seat.
And then, we all gasped softly, as Aoife burst into song, singing the lines from the enduring Irish folk song ” Galway Bay” , which she had creatively adapted for this moment. In moving Celtic intonation she sang:
“And if there is going to be a life hereafter
And faith I know there’s going to be
I want by God, to meet this woman there
I just missed, on this island of Baalee.
We could see and feel that the whole congregation was transfixed, without knowing the meaning of the words. The power of music. As with ” Dhanno Budunge” sung with feeling, with people who don’t know any Sinhala. Though he did, the interpreter had no need to say in Bahasa Indonesia what the moving adaptation of the Irish song meant.
It was at this moment that I felt the hotel owners and the tourist board had made a far-seeing judgement. Today’s tourists are too varied to be singly classified as seeking ordinarily meant sensual pleasures .
We moved on with the congregation with various rituals on the way, till we reached the cremation site. The final ritual and the body was offered to the flames. The two daughters though composed were weeping profusely. The flames rose upwards bright and strong, in contrast to the two girls with bodies bent.
Soon we were back in our van, to the hotel. It was mostly silence all the way. Only the Irish woman Aoife spoke just as we came to our destination.
“Tomorrow the hotel has organized our beach carnival”, she reminded, speaking casually.
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