Tourism in Jaffna

With 10 new hotel projects coming up in Jaffna, on the surface, the northern tourism sector seems to be on the right track to prosper.

I have been smitten with Jaffna since my first visit to the peninsula in 2011, as a part of a group of journalists to cover the first Jaffna Music Festival. The festival, a sister event of the biennial Galle Music Festival, was organised to revive the long forgotten rich culture of the north, which had been alienated from the rest of the country for three decades. Back then, the city was in the midst of assembling its pieces. There were few hotels and fewer tourists.

Differences in language meant a simple verbal exchange with local vendors proved to be extremely difficult. The journey from Colombo took an arduous 13 hours on a bumpy road. However, as I entered the peninsula, there was a sense of wonder that took hold of me. Four trips over eight years later and I still haven’t been able to shake it off.

Now the journey to Jaffna takes nine hours on a smoothly carpeted A9 road and six hours on the intercity train. As of March, there are 19 hotels listed on the official Sri Lanka tourism website and there are 10 new projects offering 315 rooms in the pipeline. Many are venturing towards the north, now more than ever, to experience the region’s rich culture and sample some of the best food the island has to offer.

Investors are seizing the opportunity to stake a claim in the lush landscape in the north, but connectivity has long been an issue of concern.

Swimming pool Fox Jaffna by Fox Resorts

Fox Jaffna by Fox Resorts is one of the few hotels in Jaffna that has a swimming pool.

While the Yal Devi train has breathed new life to the region, the six- to nine-hour journey is still a damper for the time-conscious foreign travellers, who are astounded by travel times in the island when compared to its size. For years, flying to Jaffna – an hour and a half journey from Colombo – was an option available to those who had the means but gradually independent domestic carriers cancelled their scheduled flights to the area. Here too, things are changing.

After suspending civilian flights to Jaffna and Trincomalee in August last year due to technical compliance issues, Helitours has resumed its scheduled flights in January. The flights operate three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from the Bandaranaike International Airport flying via Trincomalee. Helitours will be using the MA60 – a military flight cleared for civilian transport – which can accommodate up to 52 passengers and ease the burden of long transfer times.

Sri Lanka Railways has also introduced a new intercity train, the ‘Uttar Devi’, to Jaffna which consists of 6 compartments, two of which are air-conditioned, and can carry 724 passengers at a time, helping overcome the connectivity issues the northern hospitality sector has struggled with for years.

Connectivity aside, what else does Jaffna tourism need in order to thrive?

Jetwing, a well-known brand in the hospitality industry, has two hotels in the north.  Jetwing Jaffna, a 55-bedroom hotel launched in 2016, and North Gate by Jetwing, a 44-bedroom property that the group started managing last year. Christopher Ponnadurai, a former restaurateur who was based in Australia for three decades, returned to the island in 2015 in the hope of contributing to the country’s development. Now, as the General Manager of both hotels, Ponnadurai feels that the lack of interesting experiences in Jaffna is one of the city’s main drawbacks as a travel destination.

Jaffna Hotelier Christopher Ponnadurai

Unlike the south coast, which has a plethora of activities and hosts experiences ranging from adventure and wellness to food, the north places emphasis on its more traditional, touristic sites including numerous temples and the Jaffna fort. While this may interest heritage and cultural visitors, tourism growth in the area is dependent on its ability to create a diverse identity that will entice travellers with different interests.

“Arugam Bay is known for surfing and Mannar is starting to promote kitesurfing, so similar opportunities also need to be explored in Jaffna because tourists want experiences,” says Ponnadurai.

In an attempt to do their part in introducing new experiences as well as providing travellers with the chance to explore the city in a unique way, he plans to launch horse-drawn carriage rides around Jaffna city for guests at both Jetwing hotels.

The need for alternatives

Echoing similar sentiments, Sangaran Hariharan, the owner of Jaffna’s first tourist accommodation – Subahas Hotel, also feels that the city needs to widen its offerings as a destination so that it can be an area that caters to a broader audience with varied interests. The 29-bedroom hotel was set up in 1970 by his father, a Kerala native who came to Sri Lanka looking for better prospects. It has lived through the most difficult times of Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war.

Jaffna Hotelier Sangaran Hariharan

Although Hariharan, the oldest of seven children, studied as an engineer in London, he decided to follow his father’s footsteps by taking over the hotel when he returned to the country in the 1980s. A renowned brand with the baby boomers’ generation, Subahas still has a loyal FIT client base from France, Australia, Germany, England and is popular among Indian pilgrimage groups.

“From a tourist point of view, we don’t have activities specially for youngsters to enjoy,” says Hariharan, stressing the need for alternative options for families with kids and teenagers who visit the region. He cites the absence of activities as the biggest obstacle for tourism growth in the northern peninsula. In addition to rectifying this, the hotelier also suggests that the government should consider introducing defined areas for tourists especially on the coast so that they can enjoy themselves without upsetting the cultural values of the locals.

Due to the peninsula’s history and positioning, it is one of the last locations in the island to welcome the tourism industry. While hotels might be opening up, the need for proper regulations to help navigate a budding tourism industry in a conservative culture is a point that seems to be unattended. In the absence of these, the hospitality sector needs to be cautious to ensure that locals in the region will not turn towards hostility as tourism booms, when the community is unable to cope with the influx of visitors or the culture clash.

Jaffna hotel Subahas Hotel exterior

Subahas Hotel is the oldest tourist accommodation in Jaffna

The hoteliers emphasised that Jaffna has much potential but are concerned if the government and Sri Lanka Tourism Board are doing enough to promote the destination. Due to its distance from Colombo, another question to ponder – is the region being packaged properly?

Destination marketing for Jaffna

Fox Resorts, a hotel collection started by Capital Maharaja in 2017 opened their latest venture – Fox Jaffna last year. At present, Fox Resorts manages several accommodations including Mas Villa in Kotmale, Ranna Beach Villa near Tangalle, and is in the midst of constructing another property in Kandy.

With ancestral roots and land in Jaffna, setting up a hotel of their own seems to have been a dream of the Chairman of Capital Maharaja, R. Rajamahendran. Chris Quyn, the Chief Executive Officer of Fox Resorts, feels that there’s significant tourism growth in the northern peninsula.

Jaffna Hotel, Jetwing Jaffna, exterior

Jetwing Jaffna is a 55-bedroom hotel set up in 2016

Occupancy has doubled in this 24-bedroom boutique hotel since its launch in August and Quyn is confident that numbers will increase further by next year. The hotel is graced by domestic tourists, the diaspora community, and visitors from Germany, Japan, and several Asian countries. While he feels that certain niche travel agents are doing their part to promote Jaffna by designing custom tours, there’s plenty room for improvement.

Ponnadurai recommended that the city should be incorporated in the Cultural Triangle route – which currently comprises Anuradhapura – Polonnaruwa – Dambulla and Sigiriya to counteract the distance. The inclusion of the northern peninsula into this route will give travellers an opportunity to explore not only Jaffna culture but also the landscape unique to the area. “In the 1970s and 80s, we promoted Kandy in the south by including it on a day or two-day tour to see the Temple of the Tooth, cultural dances, and the batik industry, and I think the same theory can be applied to boost Jaffna.”

Travel agents cite the lack of product knowledge on Jaffna as one of the main reasons they are unable to promote it to more visitors. While interest in the region has increased over the years, they feel hesitant to encourage tourists to visit, as it is difficult to find chauffeur-guides who have sufficient information on the area to accompany travellers. The importance of conducting a thorough study on Jaffna to explore available options for experiences and activities is also highlighted. This research can be handled in conjunction with the tourism board authorities to educate chauffeur-guides – who are essentially Sri Lanka’s ambassadors for travellers who visit the country.

Jaffna Hotelier Chris Quyn

Staffing is another major concern for this budding sector in Jaffna, as much as it is to hoteliers in the rest of the country. Despite the island’s eagerness for development, Sri Lanka continues to uphold some of its more traditional values. The country places a high value on careers related to medicine, law, accounting, engineering, and more recently, IT, and disregards jobs that do not fall under any of these categories. These views are shared by most families in Jaffna, an area where government jobs have always been highly prioritised, causing big problems to the hospitality sector, which is only starting to gain momentum.

The lack of young blood with no scope for training except at the hotel is a spoke in the wheels. Compounding the problem, those who join the sector are ambitiously looking for a one-way ticket overseas as soon as they shed their training wheels.

Ponnadurai returned to the country a year before the launch of Jetwing Jaffna in 2016, in order to recruit and train staff for the hotel. He trained 65 – 70 people and the hotel absorbed over 60% of its team from the Jaffna Youth Development Programme graduates. Although 85% of the current staff at Jetwing Jaffna are from nearby areas, recruiting new staff is difficult, especially for the stewarding department because “no one wants to wash dishes.”

In 2015, when the hotel was launched, they received 500 applications for roles, but with the number of accommodations increasing over the last four years, the hotels have had to compete for the same pool of people, making recruitment a much harder task.

Although it has been three years since the first Jetwing hotel in Jaffna was launched, Ponnadurai  believes the local response to the hospitality sector has not changed much, as it’s “difficult to penetrate their traditional values.” He adds,

“People here are different. Someone who works in a restaurant in Galle, would want to go to Colombo to get more experience but here they just want to go overseas; they think that’s the only way to make it.”

The fact that many in Jaffna do not speak the principal language used in the rest of the country is also one of the main reasons to seek foreign employment.

Exuding a more homely vibe in a modern setting, The Thinnai is a 39-suite hotel offering 58-bedrooms, some with cooking facilities, developed and managed by Thinnaveli Property Developers.

Nissanka Mangalagama, the General Manager of the hotel says that in order to deal with the lack of training opportunities in the north, they have started a hotel school in-house. Although the owners are keen on employing all of their staff from the area, the lack of training forced the management to hire key staff members, especially cooks from other areas.

The in-house training programme trains people in front office, housekeeping, kitchen and food and beverage, and soft skills. Once they are sufficiently trained, depending on available vacancies, they are absorbed to the existing workforce or are qualified to seek employment in the hospitality sector elsewhere. After spending 16 years at Turyaa Kalutara on the west coast, Mangalagama moved to Thinnai prior to its launch, seeking new challenges in a completely new setting.

Sharing his views on the training shortage, Quyn of Fox Resorts, a veteran hotelier with 32 years’ experience in the hospitality industry, says that there’s an urgent requirement for a hotel school in the north and it could be a joint venture between the government and the private sector. “People are keen to join the industry but they need to have the right kind of training.”

The region’s strong belief in the traditional caste systems is also another factor that means many families are hesitant to let their children join the hospitality sector.

The absence of a common wastewater management system is yet another hurdle that is currently affecting hotels in Jaffna. Unlike in Colombo, the city does not have a common system in place to deal with wastewater, which forces hotels to invest in their own wastewater systems. In order to renew their licence every year with the Sri Lanka Tourism Board, hotels are required to submit a collection of reports including water sample, fire, insurance policy for public liability, medical reports of staff and the environmental protection licence by the Central Environmental Authority. The latter is only provided to hotels if they have duly submitted a report for a wastewater plant that will be built and operated at the expense of the hotel.

Jaffna Hotel The Thinnai, courtyard

The Thinnai offers an apartment-styled room category ideal for longer stays

Hariharan feels that this situation is unnecessary and extremely costly for the hoteliers and could be avoided if the local authorities invested in a common wastewater disposal system covering the northern peninsula, or at minimum the city area. After being given a grace period for being the oldest hotel in Jaffna, Hariharan is in the process of building a wastewater treatment plant for Subahas, investing a sum of “one million rupees” and will have to incur daily costs to manage and operate the plant once it is completed.

Several hotels including Jetwing Jaffna and Fox Resorts have managed to turn this situation to their advantage by recycling this water to maintain their gardens, after the water has been sufficiently treated. In the case of Thinnai – located 10 minutes from the city, they use it to sustain their organic farm at their sister property Thinnai Organic Farm. However, this could place city hotels that do not enjoy the luxury of space at a massive disadvantage.

Jaffna Hotel, Jetwing Jaffna Lobby

The lobby at Jetwing Jaffna

While this may be a solution to ensure that there is a functioning system for hotels which would not interfere with the local wastewater framework at present, whether it is practical and sustainable in the long term is a question yet to be answered.

Having seen Jaffna develop over a period of eight years, I’m amazed at the changes the region has gone through despite the many difficulties it has had to face. While many hoteliers are hopeful that the right infrastructure solutions combined with a larger selection of trained staff will help tourism grow, others ponder whether the lack of activities unique to the area will leave the city with more hotels and fewer travellers. An unattractive prospect for any tourist location.

As for me, I hope my admiration for the peninsula continues to grow with every visit and that Jaffna will receive the attention it deserves, not only to boost its appeal as a travel destination but so that its culture, history, and environment will be preserved for generations to come.

Hospitality Insider Issue 4