Creating sustainable luxury: Jetwing opens Sri Lanka to the world

By Mel Gunasekera

FROM a clutch of beach hotels to creating nature reserves and houseboats, Sri Lanka’s Jetwing Hotels group has created 13 unique properties across the island that are built on eco-friendly practices with a touch of family warmth.

Sri Lanka’s largest hotel chain, Jetwing, has quietly built a number of beach front properties from Negombo to the historic city of Galle. The Jetwing brand has also spread inland into the hills of the golfer’s heaven in Nuwara Eliya and the former royal kingdoms in Sigiriya. Each luxury property creates a diverse array of activities from jungle safaris, mountain biking, hiking, yoga, spas, Ayurveda herbal treatments, whale watching to hot air ballooning, to ensure guests enjoy a taste of the finest Sri Lankan hospitality.

The family-controlled group, run by siblings Hiran and Shiromal Cooray, is in its second generation, after their father Herbert used his entrepreneurial skills to build his first hotel in 1973. The contractor-turned hotelier, Herbert Cooray probably never imagined his small six-room property in Negombo, would lay the foundation for a chain of upmarket hideaways across the island.

Today, Jetwing’s clutch of businesses are broadly classified under three main divisions: Jetwing Travels, Jetwing Eco Holidays and Jetwing Hotels.

On the threshold of its 40h year, Jetwing is on an expansion drive to double its room inventory across Sri Lanka and scouting for opportunities in the Indo-China region.

“Our current room capacity will double within the next 36 months, with new hotels in key locations and a small houseboat operation offering river cruises,” said Ishanth Gunewardene, Head of Sales and Marketing, Jetwing Hotels.

On the cards is their first city hotel in the capital of Colombo, a safari hotel in Yala, which is next to one of Sri Lanka’s biggest wildlife game parks, a hotel in the central regions of Dambulla and a new hotel in Negombo.

With Sri Lanka emerging after nearly four decades of war, Jetwing has ventured into the untapped former warzone areas, with a beach front property on the east coast (Jetwing Reef in Upaveli) and Jetwing Yarl in Jaffna (in the north).

“Most of the properties will be ready between 2013 and 2015, giving us a wider reach to extend the Jetwing hospitality to all corners of Sri Lanka,” Gunewardene said.

In Negombo, just north of Colombo, the group is quietly expanding its portfolios of properties. The group has five properties – Jetwing Ayurveda Pavilions (an upmarket health resort), Jetwing Beach, Jetwing Blue, Jetwing Sea and Jetwing Lagoon. All properties are classed four-stars and above.

In Jetwing Lagoon, the group found an ideal base to rebuild a hotel by the Negombo lagoon and also acquire a beach front property across from the hotel, said Gunewardene.

The Jetwing Lagoon in Negombo.

“We are planning to build eight beach front villas and hope to complete the project within 18 months,” he said.

On the central hillside, also known as Little England for its cold climate, Jetwing plans to add 42-rooms to the Tudor-style country house that once served as a residence of the British Raj.

In the deep south along the shores of Galle, another 22 rooms are being added to Jetwing Lighthouse that is built alongside a rugged crop of rocks overlooking the Indian Ocean.

Jetwing Lighthouse.

Gunewardene says nearly all properties are designed on the lines of minimalistic, open-space, stately elegance that is a hallmark of Sri Lanka’s famed architect the late Geoffrey Bawa and his pupils.

The settings compliment Jetwings renowned hospitality, where staff go the extra mile to make their guests feel at home within a family atmosphere.

“Our small size and the family ownership allow us to be more focused, take quick decisions and cut through red-tape. Little things like this have helped us to grow our brand and ensure high quality of service is maintained across all our properties,” he said.

The same principle is applied across the shores to three properties they manage in New Zealand (Off Broadway Motel), Laos (Xiengthong Palace) and Vietnam (Mai Chau Lodge). The group is scouting for more opportunities in Laos, Vietnam regions and is also eyeing to manage a property in India.

Going Green

Amidst this rapid growth phase, many of the group’s core principles have remained the same. The notable among them is the high importance placed on taking care of the environment, the ecology and remaining sustainable.

In all projects, the group ensures the new building materials are either reused old timber left behind on the site or use sustainable timber that does not originate from primary forest. The hotel properties use renewable energy to minimise dependence on grid-powered thermal plants and recycle water and waste.

At the Jetwing Lagoon, a central chilling system powered by a biomass boiler (using cinnamon saplings) runs the air conditioners. The hotel uses solar energy to power room lighting, hot water is generated by biomass boilers, and excess and waste water is recycled and used within the property.

A solar-powered mobile water purification and bottling plant now fills bottled water in glass bottles, which are made of 30 percent recycled glass.

A notable feature of every Jetwing hotel is the light switches that turn green when using renewable power and red when using grid power. Jetwing’s new property in Yala will have solar panels on all of its roofs, providing the hotel’s energy requirements, and feeding the excess energy to the national grid.

Jetwing Vil Uyana

One of the group’s greatest achievements is Jetwing Vil Uyana, where a wetland was built on an abandoned rice field. Jetwing took a further step by re-foresting a large portion of the land and involved the local community by training and employing them in the hotel. All hotels maintain their green directory and code of ethics.

Community Engagement

Jetwing takes pride in its sustainability initiatives. Over the last decade each hotel has a naturalist to help guests connect with the local environment, its history and culture. Through the Jetwing Eternal Earth Programme (JEEP) the group has planted planted over 3,500 trees.

Another social initiative initiated under this program, the Jetwing Youth Development Project for the local community. The project trains young people from the area and absorbs them into the hotels.

Gunewardene says the group’s carbon initiatives are aimed at attracting environmentally-conscious guests.

We find a lot of the European travellers are aware of their carbon footprint, and look for holidays that will minimise their impact. They like to stay with hotels that are energy efficient, are less harmful to the environment and practice sustainability concepts.

“The trend to go green is gathering pace across the world. We have been practicing green initiatives for decades before the going green became a buzzword.”