Financial Times

Herbert Cooray: Gentle giant and an unsung hero

Herbert Cooray, Chairman of the Jetwing Group at age 79, was getting ready two Fridays ago, to make his usual visit to his office, when he had a fatal fall. A gentle giant, who with his vision and determination built a unique Sri Lankan brand of tourism products and a culture of Sri Lankan hospitality, is no more.
To most in the hospitality industry today, Herbert Cooray is Shiromal’s or Hiran’s father. To me, he was more Summa’s friend and someone who had a clear and focussed vision for developing tourism in Negombo as far back as the 1970s. I met Herbie, as he was fondly known to all his friends, on the first occasion in early 1979 on a late Sunday morning.

I together with my boss (late Summantha Amarasinghe, first Director of Coast Conservation in Sri Lanka) and two other colleagues had gone on an inspection of the Negombo beach. I was then a cub Manager of Coastal Resource Planning, working with the pioneer team that set up the Coast Conservation Department. Our task that day was to seek solutions to a growing threat of coastal erosion on the stretch of beach, where several beach hotels were operational. On our inspection, we were joined by Herbie, the hotelier whom Summa knew as a friend, accompanied by his closest associate, Ruwan Samarasinghe.

It did not take me too long to realise how passionate Herbie was, about this stretch of beach and how he knew it’s every feature so well. He gave us practical and realistic insights on why it should be conserved and why the land needed to be saved from the travails of erosion that was now eating into the very edge of the swimming pool of the Hotel Blue Oceanic. After the inspection, we were invited to the Blue Oceanic for fellowship, where I got the first taste of the feel and hospitality of a person in the hospitality industry. Herbie, while offering us food and drinks, spoke very little but listened attentively to the many solutions Summa and the team proposed to contain the problem.

He spoke of the good old university days, when he was a strong Trotskyite and supporter of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party. I later learnt that the relationship Summa had to late Minister Philip Gunawardena and the affinity Herbie had towards the Minister, also was cause for cementing the bondage between the two visionaries, one in tourism and other in coast conservation.

In the course of that and other interactions we had thereafter, I realised that Herbie had his beginnings in the hotel industry, through being the building contractor for the pioneer resort hotelier in the area west of Colombo, late Gem Milhuisen, who then operated The Blue Lagoon Resort at Talahena. Milhuisen invited Herbie to build The Seashells Hotel in Negombo with 40 rooms, which he built in a record six months; a gigantic feat, given the state of building technology at that time. Milhuisen, impressed by the work of his colleague encouraged Herbie, to build a hotel for himself. Jetwing Blue Oceanic initially built with six rooms, was the fruit of that effort, which he proudly spoke of later, as the first hotel of the Jetwing Hotel chain. Herby always spoke of the value of loyalty and of people he worked with, with fondness and the caring of a parent, as if they were his own.
Through Herbie’s and Summa’s vision and efforts, the Negombo Coast Conservation Project was undertaken also supported by the then Minister of Fisheries, late Festus Perera in the 1980s. A groin field covering a long stretch of beach and breakwaters was built and sand from offshore was pumped in, to build what is today one of the most sought after beaches in Sri Lanka.

A solid solution was found to a problem that irked the residents, the fishermen and the hoteliers of the area, affecting their livelihoods up to that point. Today, the beach at Negombo stands proud to tell the tale of Herbie’s and Summa’s determination. He had the vision to seek the support of Summa and work tirelessly thereafter, to make it happen.

Men of vision, determination and grit such as late Herbert Cooray, are rare and must be remembered for who they were; gentle giants and unsung heroes.
Renton de Alwis
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