Wednesday, 30 April 2014 00:00
Rainforest Ecolodge Chairman Prema Cooray unfolds the story behind ‘The Rainforest’, Sri Lanka’s model ecotourism lodge constructed as a collective industry effort
By Cheranka Mendis
A beautiful canopy of green covers the area. On one side it is the tea leaves that gleam from its bushes, waiting for expert hands to pluck them to be blended in to a nice warm cup of Ceylon Tea; from the other side it is the soft rustling of the great trees that wake you, the cool breeze bringing in the scent of the wild, tickling your nostrils with the aroma of the earth.
What is offered on a silver platter of breathtaking wonder at ‘The Rainforest’, Deniyaya is nature at its best – Sri Lanka in all its green glory.
What began as an initiative to explore the diversity of Sri Lankan tourism is today the perfect model for ecotourism in Asia, and perhaps the world. Symbiotically blending the environment with people and communities, The Rainforest tells a story of Sri Lanka’s successful eco story and stands as a beacon of industry harmony, and a representation of correct, sustainable and world class eco lodgings in the country.
Sharing its story, Rainforest Ecolodge Chairman and renowned hotelier Prema Cooray noted that it all began when USAID, along with some key hoteliers launched an initiative to make Sri Lanka more competitive in the year 2000.
“The Competitiveness Initiative (TCI) was launched by USAID at the invitation of the Government to enhance the potential of tourism in Sri Lanka and make it more competitive,” Cooray said. “All of us in tourism got together; I was at the time President of the Hotel’s Association, and together we formed an informal network, The Tourism Cluster (TTC), and we worked towards taking Sri Lanka beyond beaches.”
The theme was ‘Beyond beaches to nature, culture and adventure’ and after years of extensive work and challenges, they have succeeded in the attempt to portray Sri Lanka as a diversified country with an extensive profile rather than a beach product only.
“We engaged in many tasks to secure our competitiveness as a destination. It was in that attempt that we ventured to do a typical pilot project on eco tourism; and that is the story.”
"For more details, log in to www.rainforest-ecolodge.orgFor reservations contact 011-5588714 or email@example.com"From the unknown to the known
At the time Cooray and his cluster started pondering over eco tourism – it was virtually an unknown term to the industry. Now the word is hacked with more and more products labelling themselves with the ‘eco’ tag just to pull in crowds.
Cooray who counts well over 30 years in travel and tourism has previously held the position as Chairman of Aiken Spence and has led the company’s hotel sector for several years, during which he played a pivotal role in the development of the renowned Kandalama Hotel, which is considered as one of the eco friendliest hotels in the country.
Recalling the days when Kandalama Hotel was beginning to take shape, Cooray reflected on the controversies that surrounded the building and the protests they had to put up with. “Eventually, what was a controversy then is a model in environmental management now,” he assured. “As such we knew what we had to do and that it is not going to be an easy run in forming The Rainforest.”
As predicted, scepticism was something they had to deal with to great lengths. A beach destination till then, many blamed the cluster for trying to take that away from the industry.
Learning from other success stories
To ensure they have all the right things in order, they turned to Costa Rica, a former beach destination which had turned the eco leaf, with remarkable results.
“We sent a team to Costa Rica consisting of individuals from the tourism industry, university, and the Forest Department,” Cooray outlined. “We involved the university and Forest Department as most of the research areas were under them and majority of interpreters used in eco tourism are generally graduates in zoology and botany, unlike the typical guides. It was a new form of tourism and had to be done in the proper manner.”
They also compiled a booklet for ecotourism for the first time, financed by USAID, through which they identified certain areas where ecotourism products can be located in Sri Lanka and Sinharaja was one of the places we identified.
They were also supported with $ 900,000 grant assistance by USAID to help them in the initial studies and to compile an interpretation guide manual – to interpret the forest during treks.
The ideal location
Upon their return they looked for an ideal location, and found the scenic spot on which the lodge stands at today, thriving on a 500 acre division of the Enselwatte Tea Estate, bordering in the south eastern side of the Sinharajah rainforest reserve.
The location is also central to the diversity of the country.
It is centrally located to Udawalawe, where the elephants roam in large herds, to Yala where the elusive leopard would make an appearance, to Galle and Mirissa where the whales swim beneath the waves, and in very close proximity to the rainforest where birds show their colour along with a few globally threatened species such as the blue magpie (which also decorates The Rainforest logo), fishing cats, giant squirrels, red slender loris, purple faced leaf monkeys and toque monkeys.
The new wave of tourism in Sri Lanka
A collective industry effort, the cluster then decided on a financial model that sought funds from all major industry stakeholders.
The innovative funding mechanism that employed public-private partnership led the way to the application of global practices which are now, visible learning tools of this model initiative.
A sensitive area just like Kandalama, the project ran in to various protests, especially with the Pradeshiya Sabha and had to be paused from 2007 to 2009.
“We wasted a lot of time,” he stressed. “However with the intervention and support from the President we managed to finish the project off during 2009-2011 period.”
Cooray added: “In the process of building this there were a lot of challenges in addition to protests; construction itself was challenging because the terrain was difficult, people refuse to wait there and work as it is very isolated, etc.”
The end product
They now have 16 beautiful chalets, made out of used shipping containers and furnished with bamboo walling from Indonesia, used railway sleepers for entrance and flooring and, steel and glass.
Stepping in to the chalets, one cannot see even a trace of the old shipping container and is welcomed to a beautifully decorated lodging consisting of a bedroom, washroom, living room and private deck.
Situated between the estate and the forest, the chalets offer its guests the best of both worlds. Built with large windows for cross ventilation and natural cooling, there is no need for an air conditioners or fans.
“You won’t believe the change in climate,” Cooray remarked animatedly. “When you come to Deniyaya town, 500 ft above sea level it is warm. Climb 8 km and when you go up, it’s so high you’ll get scared to look down. In this 8 km you go up 200 ft and it’s like Bandarawela; in half an hour, the whole climate changes.”
“It is an amazing place. It is a tea estate which dissolves in to the rainforest and we are at the border, built around tea, showing the canopy of the forest. It is stunning. I have been to many rainforests in the world but have never seen anything like this.”
The Ecolodge has been constructed at an investment of $ 4 million.
The road up to The Rainforest has been developed by the Government at a cost of Rs. 15 million.
The hotel has experienced 50-55% occupancy during the last four months.
“The idea isn’t to make profits here; it is just a pilot project to show all developers how to develop an ecotourism product when you are next constructing one.”
The Rainforest received a US State Building Council Platinum rating, the highest ever which only five hotels in the world possess. They are one of the three brand products that has LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, along with MAS Holdings, Thurulie and the Brandix property in Seeduwa.
In building the eco-lodge, they had a scientific advisory committee advising them on how to build, protecting the soil and without cutting trees, etc.
Soil from every hole that was dug was collected in bags and put back in after the construction. Only 30% of cement was used in the construction. Steel and glass were used as they can be recycled.
What is ecotourism?
Cooray, having extensive experience in sustainable building and management, noted that ecotourism is all about an interpretation of a natural richness in a place. “It generally borders forests or something of interest to nature. Eco-lodges are just accommodation units. In the world you get five star accommodation as well as very raw accommodation also. Ecotourism products don’t necessarily mean five star accommodations, nor do they mean a hut in the forest.”
The ecotourism model is based on the ‘three P principle’ – planet, people and profit – a concept that is embraced the world over.
“If you don’t give equal prominence to environment and community you are now not respected as a good corporate citizen. Even financial reporting is now taking a different turn; where you must integrate what you do to environment and community in to the accounting.”
Following that model, The Rainforest Eco Lodge spent Rs. 30 million in building housing for the estate community there, taking apart their line-rooms. “We made it a township with a playground and school, etc to improve the livelihood of the people.” This was done before building the hotel.
Community development also takes place on a continuous basis since then. Out of 22, 16 staff members are from the Deniyaya environs. People doing the treks are mostly from the village as well. The vegetation to a large degree comes from the area as well; while the chef grows his own vegetables too. “We follow that principle of protecting the environment and building the community.”
“We are not done yet,” Cooray said.
“We are in the process of finishing an Interpretation Centre that will fill the whole place with literature so that the people know what to expect before going to the forest.” This is made in a mini forest-like model in a way that it emulates the surroundings in order to expose visitors to the real conditions of the forest prior to venturing into the thick of it.
An arboretum, in the form of a walking train within the precincts of the forest, has already been developed.
A special accommodation area for youth travellers and university students to enjoy the facility at concessionary rates is now being developed and will be opened very soon.
The icing on the cake however will be the canopy walk. Another pioneering initiative, The Rainforest Eco-lodge will implement a rainforest canopy walk to be used by its guests and visitors for the exploration of the rainforest from an elevated view. This would be the first time; the strategy is used in Sri Lanka to promote awareness on the surrounding ecosystem.
The drawings have been done and they are currently awaiting permission to build.“This is our gift to Sri Lanka. We hope the upcoming eco accommodations will use our collective initiative as a guiding model to construct eco lodgings that are world-class and with minimum impact to the environment,” Cooray said.