Spence, Keells in 'tea tourism' ventures
Tea subsidiaries of John Keells and Aitken Spence are among the plantations companies planning to diversify into tourism, taking advantage of prime mountainous locations and concessionary foreign loans.

Both firms are already using some of their estate bungalows to cater to tourists, mostly local, but have big plans to go up-market and put up entirely new projects, some with the support of foreign investment.

Rohan Fernando, managing director of Aitken Spence Plantation Managements, said its Elpitiya Plantations subsidiary was looking at developing eco-tourism. The company has already given out two estate bungalows in the Pundalu Oya area and now wants to upgrade these properties to cater to more up-market clientele.

"Today there is a big shortage of hotel rooms," Fernando said. "We're trying to develop estate bungalows into boutique hotel type ventures and link it with some other tourist attractions in and around tea gardens to make it a complete package."
Industry officials said the aim was to develop and promote 'tea tourism', a product similar to 'wine tourism' in countries like France, and exploit the international recognition for Ceylon tea.

The 'tea tourism' concept aims to give visitors, especially connoisseurs or regular tea drinkers, the opportunity to enjoy the experience of living on a tea plantations and seeing how the leaf is plucked and manufactured into black tea.

John Keells is already promoting the estate bungalows of its plantations subsidiaries but has a bigger project in mind with the participation of foreign investors. "We want to enhance the tea story and boost the tea image of the country and provide good accommodation to visitors," said an official. "We want to develop 'experiential tourism' - giving a good experience to tourists by arranging for them to live in plantation bungalows.

"It will connect the whole tea story to tourism - create a very exclusive holiday experience. We want to develop a new product." RPCs will have access to funds under the latest Asian Development Bank plantations development project that provides about $30 million in soft loans for a wide range of activities such as replanting, infilling, diversification, and factory modernisation in the tea and rubber sectors.

The project period is six years from 2003 and the RPCs have to submit strategic business plans on how they intend to invest the money, said R.M. Premadasa, project co-ordinator, Plantations Industries Ministry. The project has a component for tourism under which RPCs can develop tourism in the estate sector using estate bungalows, he said.

The move is part of the effort by the RPCs to diversify away from the cultivation and export of traditional crops and make use of their extensive real estate holdings to generate additional revenue streams. RPCs are known to have estate bungalows on locations with spectacular views of mountains, forests and waterfalls.

Tea tourism is part of the concept of low volume/high yield "experiential tourism", tourism of a unique nature, driven by personal desires to satisfy individual ambitions and needs, that has seen a revival in the last decade.

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