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 family-owned 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 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.