JAFFNA, Saturday – Navaratnarajah Nimaltan counts his blessings with a radiant smile on his face. He says he was too young to know much about war-torn Jaffna. And if things hadn’t changed he might have been forcibly recruited by the LTTE. But fate was kind to him and instead of dishing out death he was [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Reconciliation process in Jaffna gets 5-Star flavour


Navaratnarajah Nimaltan

JAFFNA, Saturday – Navaratnarajah Nimaltan counts his blessings with a radiant smile on his face. He says he was too young to know much about war-torn Jaffna. And if things hadn’t changed he might have been forcibly recruited by the LTTE. But fate was kind to him and instead of dishing out death he was serving ‘thali’ at the newest hot-spot in town last Sunday.  Mr. Nimaltan is one of 48 youngsters from the peninsula recruited by Jetwing Jaffna, the first leading hotel brand in the country to open a star-class hotel that will serve to inspire the youth of Jaffna. “My parents went through hard times during the war but I was lucky and I don’t know much about the LTTE and all the problems people faced then.

I’m very happy all that is in the past,” says the handsome resident as he places platters of yummy Jaffna crab and other delights in front of a group of famished media who had travelled more than 300 km by road for the official opening of the one-billion rupee-worth luxury hotel.  Almost seven years ago to this date, the bloody conflict which had enveloped this island came to an end. Mr. Nimaltan was only 14 at the time and was sheltered safe and sound by his parents in Jaffna. His father, who sells bananas for a living and his mum, had managed to send his elder brother and sister to France. Mr. Nimaltan hopes to follow one day, not as an economic refuge, but as a full-blown F&B manager. And he is thankful to Jetwing for giving him the chance to follow the road that will hopefully lead to a reunification with his siblings.

After the war ended …
In May, 2009, three decades of conflict came to a bloody end. Two years later, Jetwing chairman Hiran Cooray was approached by then minister of tourism Milinda Moragoda with a proposal to open a luxury hotel in Jaffna.  Mr. Cooray takes up the story. “In 2011 we were thinking we must do something to help the economy in Jaffna. We didn’t have any plans, or any substantial blueprints, just an idea, that’s all we had. A few months later the former minister of tourism called me and asked whether we would like to partner him in a hotel project and we jumped at it and said ‘yes’. We had no idea where the land was even but we were so keen to come in.”

Sweet cries of “Vanakkam” ring as we are greeted by lissome sari-clad girls in the cool lobby of a resplendent white building. At eight floors, it is the tallest building in town and easily spotted. There are 55 rooms. All are fully booked for the big day with President Maithripala Sirisena set to officially declare the hotel open.  Mr. Cooray is over the moon: “The President coming all this way on a Sunday morning shows how much emphasis he is placing on reconciliation. I joined this company some 25 years ago but this is the first time a head of state has come to an opening of our hotels.”

View of the hotel

Reconciliation is the in-word. It is perhaps no coincidence that Jetwing Jaffna stands smack bang on the centre of Mahatma Gandhi Road – the prophet of non-violence would have approved of the thinking behind the opening of the first luxury hotel in a former conflict zone.  “This venture is more than a business opportunity for us,” says Mr. Cooray. “Things won’t change overnight and we won’t change the thinking of everybody here. But step by avaratnarajah Nimaltan step, one day at a time, we will work towards reconciling people from the North and the South.”
Already the process has borne fruit. One of the hotel trainees taken on by the Jetwing Youth Development Programme (JYDP) eloped with her Sinhalese boyfriend when she was sent for training at a Jetwing hotel in the South of the country.

But for budding chef Rasiyapriya Udayakumar, 25, there is no time for romance only precisely cut salads. She is hell-bent on reaching the top of her culinary trade as quickly as possible. In just six months, she has already caught the eye of her experienced seniors from the South and has been penciled in for a bright future.  “I’m so lucky. Things have moved really fast for me in the last few years. I was without a job but then last February I was selected as one of the recruits by JYDP and the VTA (government’s Vocational Training Authority). All of us had an initial six-month training course and then we were sent to other (Jetwing) hotels where we got on-the-job training,” smiles Ms. Rasiyapriya.

Ms. Rasiyapriya was sent to Jetwing Yala (“my parents didn’t object as they knew this was a great opportunity for me”) while her colleague upstairs Mr. Nimaltan was embedded at The Lighthouse in Galle. Around 60 young boys and girls were recruited in-and-around Jaffna for the programme. While the majority remains with Jetwing, a few have gone abroad or taken up employment elsewhere.  “We don’t mind as the whole idea is to give the youth of Jaffna an opportunity,” says Kanchana Nanayakara, Jetwing’s HR head, who is planning to start a new recruitment drive in Kilinochchi.  Not everyone escaped unscathed by the war. There is one hotel employee who was a former Prabhakaran acolyte but since rehabilitated. He doesn’t want to talk to me, preferring to bury his bad memories in the deepest recesses of his brain.

Ponnadurai: Returning  from Melbourne
Christopher Ponnadurai, general manager of the hotel, explains the scars will take a long time to heal. “They followed a cause, right or wrong, and lost. Now they don’t want to think back to that dark period in their life. The wounds are too raw for them to open up and talk about it. It will take time.”  The passage of time has healed wounds for the 64-year-old Ponnadurai. Also a former resident of Jaffna, he was affected by the 1983 riots in Colombo and soon after left for Australia.  “I opened a restaurant in Melbourne, the Bengal Tiger, but my heart remained in this country. When I left, I promised myself I would come back one day and when I heard about this hotel, it inspired me to return. This is a great opportunity for me and it has also given me the chance to pass on my knowledge to the youth of Jaffna,” revealed Mr. Ponnadurai as he oversees arrangements for the arrival of the President.

The President is flying in to Jaffna. Lucky him. We had to travel a road wrought with danger. The A9 highway has no terrors by the wayside these days other than predatory policemen waiting to pounce on speeding drivers. Our bus driver Chanil is flagged down for going above the 60KMPH mark. He tries to tell the cop that he is hurrying to meet a pressing engagement –the opening of Jaffna’s first star-class hotel which the President himself was attending. The cop is unimpressed. He tells Chanil that he had even flagged down the chairman of Jetwing. The high as well as the low are all equal in the eyes of this cop.  It takes some more persuasion from Nalin Ariyaratne, General Manager of Jetwing (Events) and a few packs of lunch to convince the lawman to allow us to proceed with a stern warning.

Mr. Ariyaratne is confident that Jaffna will soon become a hub for visitors both local and foreign. Last year according to the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority, close to 1.8 million tourists entered the country, a year-on-year increase of 17.8 per cent. The target for the end of this year is 2.5 million. But very few visit Jaffna.  “Apart from tourists, we are also looking at attracting people from the Tamil Diaspora who didn’t have a nice place to stay before. We are also looking at foreign nationals who work for NGOs and embassies to stay with us,” says Mr. Ariyaratne.

Rasiyapriya Udayakumar

Best hotel in the city
With prices between US$125 and US$200 a night for a double – locals will get a special discount – the hotel is well-placed to become the tourist hub of the city.  While it might have not started out as a wholly business idea for Mr. Cooray, there is no doubt that with the absence of any other luxury hotel brand in Jaffna, Jetwing is well set to make a killing.  “We are very pleased to be the first big hotelier to come to Jaffna. We are proud of ourselves, our company, and our partners who have teamed up. It is easy to talk but to put your hand into your pocket and pull money out and invest is a different thing and in this aspect we are glad to come out here and show the way for the others to follow,” says a gleeful Mr. Cooray. Apart from Jetwing, the Jaffna property has three other private investors including a party from Norway. The long-term objective is to go public and have more stakeholders.  “We wanted more people in Jaffna and the diaspora to be part of it and we made it clear from the start that we would not be the only investors,” Mr. Cooray added.

Paperwork took over 2 years
It was not all plain sailing. Getting all the paperwork done took more than two years. It took as much time to build with unexpected delays cropping up including the discovery of live bombs buried on site – unexploded munitions from the gory past when Jaffna was a target of government forces.  Today the streets in and around Mahatma Gandhi Road is filled with Army and Police. But there is no sign of tension on their faces and our media army is free to roam around looking for bargains in dry fish and other Jaffna delicacies.  The President arrives for the opening. Like us, he is greeted by a girl who places a ‘Pottu’ on his forehead. Armed with this third eye, Maithripala Sirisena is whisked up to the rooftop for the official ceremony replete with speeches.

He doesn’t speak himself but undoubtedly he must be pleased with the progress in Jaffna.  “Reconciliation is a goal of the President. The little things we have done, like engaging the youth of Jaffna will hopefully speed up the process. Life in Jaffna is normal now,” says an upbeat Mr. Cooray.  The younger Nimaltan agrees wholeheartedly. He smiles and says: “I didn’t know anything about hotels and spoke very little English a year ago. But now my future looks promising. One day, I want to become a general manager of a hotel. I have the opportunity to do so now.”

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