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Gilly Smith


There’s something about a holiday, particularly a far flung paradise island version that comes complete with rose tinted glasses. Those cheesecloth shirts and garish gems all seem such a bargain at the time, while the boom of the waves crashing against the shores of the Indian Ocean really does make you feel a million miles away from home. So it may be that Jetwing eco-holidays isn’t really a shining beacon in global tourism at all. The fact that the eco initiatives in its heavenly hotels have even the most Scandanavian of its guests admitting that they are not worthy may just be down to the tint of their sunglasses (although we have been quizzing the Director of Ops about his top eco tips as we prepare to build our own eco-home when we get back). Its community projects in which Jetwing staff train school children how to plant trees to save the planet, provide food and reduce dependence on oil may be just some trumped up recruitment drive. Tell a child and change the world is, after all, one of those glib ideas that can’t really work, can it?

But cynicism and the sunshine of a Negombo afternoon don’t mix and in this light, it looks like Jetwing is the kind of company that really could teach the world to sing, and in perfect harmony at that. Its cultural programmes which train school kids to speak English well enough to get a good job are, it seems to me, a rather clever move to recruit the brightest sparks for jobs at one of the 12 Jetwing palaces around the country. I reckon Herbert Cooray, the company’s Sri Lankan chairman who, after all, is known as the godfather of Sri Lankan tourism, has created something that’s refreshingly rosy in the world of eco-tourism. Take Suchanditha, one of the guest relations officer at Jetwing Blue where we’ve been staying for the past four days; if company policy is to take the best of Sri Lanka’s welcoming nature which lends itself perfectly to the hospitality industry anyway, and to encourage its staff to give it freely to its guests, Suchanditha must be its flag bearer. Although Jerome Auvity, Director of Operations at Jetwing’s elegant beach front hotels in Negombo says that Suchanditha is just one of the many staff at Jetwing Blue who ‘naturally have it all’, I’ve never come across anyone like her in any of the swanky hotels I’ve found myself in over the years. Hotel staff are usually trained to keep a respectful distance, to present a corporate front and to minimise any possibility of guests feeling like they’ve landed in another world. Personally, I’m ready for a little shift from my comfort zone into an altogether more gentle and deeply soothing one, with its big smile, shake of the head and prayer positioned hands as I’m greeted with ‘Ayubowan’ (‘may you live long’). All Sri Lankans offer this readily; in fact we’ve already devised a game in which the first person to spot a grumpy local gets first go on Facebook. (We’re still fighting over the laptop with no points assigned to any of us yet.)  Suchanditha does more; she’s the one holding the hand of the German baby who’s just learned to walk. She’s the one who finds the number of the vet we need to deliver some donations to. She’s the one who slips a cosy arm around my waist while we’re discussing taxis.

Hyacinth Gunawardena, General Manager at Jetwing Blue says that it was Cooray’s vision to encourage this natural warmth and willingness to go the extra mile that’s as natural as breathing, into the training of every member of staff. “We always talk about ‘ayubowan’ and that you do it with your heart and with love,? she told me. “The staff are allowed to talk to any guests and to mingle with them. The tourists love to know about the culture and the feelings of the normal people and so they can talk to anyone here freely.?

So I’m off to spend the rest of the afternoon with Suchandita to get a little more insight into this rather astonishing little island culture where it seems ‘peace begins with a smile’. Ayubowan, as they say around these parts.


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