Thursday, October 1, 2015

Is Sustainable Comfort the Future of Ecotourism?

Discover the national park hotel that’s powered by cinnamon wood. Hiran Cooray, chairman of Jetwing Hotels, shares the initiatives that set standards for sustainable comfort and helped put Sri Lanka on a level playing field in the tourism industry.
Can you tell me a bit about your entry and what criteria they looked at to select Jetwing?
The entry we submitted was from Jetwing Yala, which went on to win the PATA Grand Award for Environment under the Corporate Environmental Programme category.
The entry was titled ‘The Success of Self-reliance’ and focused on the key environmental initiatives at the hotel: energy conservation, water management, waste management, use of environmentally friendly products, etc. It highlighted that the green concepts that had been incorporated in the planning stages of Jetwing Yala, which was designed to be self-sustaining as much as possible.

What are some of those sustainability initiatives that you consider to be standouts in the industry?
Over the years, we have introduced many such initiatives and, on the technology aspect, we are currently the benchmark for the industry.
The absorption chiller installed at Jetwing Lagoon in 2012 was a complete first in the Sri Lankan hotel industry. There was a considerable risk, as no other hotel had ever tried it before. We wanted a sustainable alternative to powering air-conditioning, because if you look at energy bills, approximately 50-60 percent would be because of the air-conditioning requirement.
The chiller has now been operating for more than 3.5 years and been a massive success. We didn’t hesitate to introduce the same technology for Jetwing Yala, and the installation cost was included in the project cost itself.
Another feature of the resort is the solar park, which covers an area of over an acre — at present the largest privately owned solar power facility in the country.
I’m very happy to say that the installation of the system has reduced the hotel’s cost of electricity by 40 percent and offers a payback period of 6-7 years.
At the moment, we are the only hotel group to have biomass boilers. The boilers are used to generate steam mainly as the heat source for the vapor absorption chillers and to generate hot water during the night.

And those boilers rely on cinnamon wood? Why is that?
The only fuel wood used for the boiler at Jetwing Hotels is cinnamon wood. The choice of cinnamon wood over other firewood was based on several factors: in addition to several technical advantages it offers, it is considered as a sustainable type of fuel wood due to its fast cropping cycle. It also serves to benefit the community as cinnamon wood is purchased from local suppliers and provides an additional income to the farmers and the local supply chain.
Are there any sustainability features that Jetwing has pioneered that are now becoming more commonplace?
After we introduced the central solar-thermal driven hot water system for Jetwing Beach in 2008 (another first!), it has now become common in the Sri Lankan hotel industry.
Another common feature today is LED illumination — I believe we were the first in the country to implement 100 percent LED lighting in our properties.
Having an absorption chiller for the cooling system was considered a risk at the time we implemented it, but now is becoming more popular among industries having a considerable cooling demand as well as those having an existing heat source from biomass.

What are travelers most surprised about when they enter a Jetwing property?
I’ve spoken to many of our guests over the years, and they always speak of the warmth in our properties. To us, a visitor has to experience traditional Sri Lankan hospitality, which we are known for throughout the world and since ancient times. The ayubowan, which you hear when you first enter, is symbolic of our commitment to a guest, translating to “may you live long” — immediately setting the tone for a stay truly like no other.
In addition, we believe in creating the perfect space for any guest, because Sri Lanka herself is a marvelous jigsaw of diverse experiences. If you come looking for wellness, we provide a haven of healing through ayurveda. If you come searching for wildlife, our properties with resident naturalists ensure unforgettable experiences. If it’s beaches, culture, cuisine, we have them all.

Do you find that travelers choose Jetwing primarily because of sustainability or because it’s a luxury property?
We have to preserve the great gift we have in Sri Lanka, but at the same time not at the expense of a visitor’s comfort. That balance is necessary, and Jetwing has struck the perfect mix of sustainable comfort. After all, the peace of mind that comes from knowing you are staying with a local family brand and helping to develop communities, sustain nature and save resources is invaluable.

How do you balance aesthetics, function and sustainability in a property?
When developing a new project these features are considered and given the same importance as the aesthetics and functionality of the hotel at the planning stages. We discuss with the consultants, in-house engineering team and financiers, in order to balance these components.
When we are introducing sustainability related initiatives to the projects, for example the solar PV system — we have to make sure that it is installed in such a way that will not distract from the concept of the hotel, or a guest’s view.

At what point in your career did you realize that sustainability is an important part of what you do?
From the very beginning, in fact. My father, Herbert Cooray, always used to say that “tourism cannot exist in isolation; it has to help the communities in the area.” That was back in the 1970s, and has remained true ever since. Being sustainable is not just about saving the environment, in our eyes — while the technology and practices we use currently are a necessity to preserve and protect, the human element needs to be looked after as well. Through programs such as the PATA Grand Award-winning Jetwing Youth Development Project, we aim to provide opportunities for talented youth to join the hospitality industry (completely free of charge), and to reap benefits for themselves and their families through hard work and commitment.

Coming from a family with a long legacy in the hospitality industry, did you ever consider working in any other industry?
Not really! You could say hospitality is in my blood, and I can’t imagine doing anything else — although when I was in the U.S. pursuing my higher studies, I did have second thoughts about coming back to Sri Lanka especially during the height of the war.
Coming back was the best decision I’ve ever made. I fell in love with my country all over again, and despite the chaos that was present, we put in place plans to expand and develop the Jetwing brand to prepare ourselves for the future. We always looked to the future, and we knew that one day the war would end and then Sri Lanka would truly rise to her potential as one of the foremost destinations in the world.

What is it about Sri Lanka that surprises first-time visitors?
The smile! We’re a very hospitable people, and we love nothing better than to welcome visitors to Sri Lanka which we are quite proud of. It also helps that in a compact destination, you have so many experiences. After all, in how many countries can you go from beaches to mountains, or from seeing whales to leopards in a day?

What are your hopes for tourism development in Sri Lanka in the coming years?
Today, we are on a level playing field. We’re no longer behind other rival destinations, except in perhaps of infrastructure which I’m confident will develop in the next few years. We have the potential, and the product, and all we need now is to aggressively pursue creative marketing strategies to push Sri Lanka to the rest of the world.
As interest in Sri Lanka continues to grow, how can the industry make sure that tourism grows in a sustainable way?
Through a joint, concentrated effort with other stakeholders and government entities in the industry. A certain set of regulatory practices is necessary, and can help new investments to start off the right way as well.
Photo credit: Yala National Park

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