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10-7-2014

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Sustainability at a Sri Lankan hotel
Sri Lankan hotel chain Jetwing boasts impressive sustainability
credentials. Martin Wright asks the chairman if it is all too good to
be true
Mart in Wright
theguardian.com , Thursday 9 January 2 01 4 1 2 .3 2 GMT

Koggala Beach south of Galle, Sri Lanka, 2 01 0. Photograph: Yadid Lev y / Alam y Photograph: Yadid Lev y /
Alam y /Alam y

If you were going to pick a name for one of the most ecologically progressive hotel chains
in the southern hemisphere, you'd hardly plump for 'Jetwing'.
It might smack of a tacky 1960s love affair with the glamour of air travel but this familyowned Sri Lankan business is quietly transforming itself into something of a green
pioneer.
Not that you'd notice. Most of Jetwing's hotels hardly ooze greenery. There's none of the
wood-and-thatch, earthy adobe ambience of your typical eco-retreat. Some of the
chain's latest hotels, are exercises in defiant modernism. The new Jetwing resort in the
Yala National Park looks more like a bold new art complex in Berlin that has been
parachuted onto the Indian Ocean shoreline than a sensitive development on a world
heritage site.
The green stuff – solar panels, biomass boilers, bottling plants which avoid the use of
plastic bottles – are tucked away out of sight. It's all rather coy. But that could be about
to change.
I met up with the chairman, Hiran Cooray, at a Jetwing hotel on the outskirts of
Colombo, where he'd just treated himself to a week's ayurvedic retreat in an effort to
offset the health effects of a corporate lifestyle. This is boomtime in Sri Lanka: the end of
the Tamil Tiger insurgency has brought about a heady rush of optimism, with heavy
spending on infrastructure, and areas once off limits opening up. Tourists are returning
in droves, undeterred by controversy over the government's human rights record. Any
tour operator in the country has to run to stand still. So sustainability has to prove it can
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10-7-2014

Sustainability at a Sri Lankan hotel | Guardian Sustainable Business | theguardian.com

pay its way, or it will get trampled in the rush.
Today, Jetwing's eco-initiatives are starting to look like sound economic sense, with
savings on everything from diesel to electricity bills. But the business logic wasn't much
in evidence back in 1991, when a stirring talk by Greenpeace activist David Suzuki
convinced the young Hiran to act. "We started with the sewage. At that time, all the
hotels sent it straight into the sea. That was normal practice." He persuaded his father,
Jetwing founder Herbert Cooray, to set up a treatment plant, but had a harder time with
the executive team. "They were saying, 'Why should we spend good money on recycling
shit?' And to be honest, it was a gamble."
It paid off in terms of reputation. "The number one attraction is the beach. If you're
killing the beach, you're killing the goose that lays the golden eggs." Jetwing surfed on
the back of enthusiastic media coverage, neighbouring hotels were bounced into
following suit, and a few years later, the government made sewage treatment
mandatory.
With the green bit between his teeth, Hiran started recruiting engineers and naturalists
who shared his enthusiasm, and together they set about transforming the whole chain.
They started with hot water. Solar heaters, hardly revolutionary even for Sri Lanka in
the 90s, were an obvious first step, providing "instant savings" on electricity bills. More
adventurous has been the decision to install boilers fuelled by biomass – specifically,
cinnamon wood. It sounds like an arcane choice. Is it really sustainable? "Completely",
Cooray explains. "Cinnamon is a woody plant, and with two harvests a year, the farmers
are left with a lot of waste which they have to get rid of quickly." Jetwing found farmers
only too ready to let them take it off their hands and now the boiler wood stores, packed
high with cinnamon wood, are suffused with a spicy scent.
Solar pv followed, and the latest hotels are set to be completely solar-powered, even
selling surplus back to the grid, with diesel generators relegated to a backup role.
In a few years, lighting has gone down the power demand curve from incandescent to
CFL to LED. The new hotels are all designed to make maximum use of cross ventilation
– through draughts which keep the main spaces cool without the need for the artificial
chill of air conditioning. That's still present in all the guest rooms, though Jetwing are
pioneering air conditioning via reverse absorption chillers – essentially a form of heat
exchanger – driven by steam from the biomass boiler.
But before this all sounds a bit too good to be true, it's time to mention the rather hefty
elephant in the room – jumbo shaped in more ways than one. As befits its name,
virtually all of Jetwing's customers arrive by air. That's quite a carbon footprint. I ask
Cooray if he's considered offsetting. Yes, they thought about it, he says, but adds that
there is a strong school of thought in Sri Lanka that doesn't believe in taking
responsibility for the sins of others – the developed world, in other words. It's a common
enough response from business leaders in the sub-continent, and to some extent it's
understandable.
But for a tour company it's a tougher position to defend. I put it to Cooray that his
customers are, after all, sinning in order to fill his coffers. "Well, that's true", he admits.
If Jetwing does do more to engage its customers with its sustainability story, as Cooray
intends, then inviting them to offset their flights – preferably via a project in Sri Lanka
itself – could perhaps be a part of the message. Overall, the savings are ratcheting up,
and he no longer has to battle sceptical management teams. "It may have started from
the heart, but now the head is also feeling happy." And it's proving popular with some of
the big tour companies who send customers Jetwing's way. For operators like TUI
Travel, which has its own strong sustainability policy, it's a neat fit – although as Cooray
ruefully comments, "unfortunately, their purchasing team doesn't answer to their
sustainability team".
So as Sri Lanka throws itself into a heady rush of tourist expansion, will Jetwing's green
stripes really bring competitive advantage at home? "I think so, but what you must
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10-7-2014

Sustainability at a Sri Lankan hotel | Guardian Sustainable Business | theguardian.com

realise is that while we're competing with other companies here, we are all on the same
side when it comes to competing with other countries. The first decision a customer
makes is whether to come to Sri Lanka at all." If the country as a whole has a greener
reputation because other operators are surfing on the back of Jetwing's reputation,
Cooray argues, everyone benefits.
Martin Wright is founding editor of Green Futures Magazine and a director of Forum
for the Future. He is based in Mumbai.
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