An English traveller encounters optimism in the unlikeliest of pachyderms
By Will Maude
During my stay here in Sri Lanka there have been dramatic monuments, extraordinary temples and rock-top forts to explore; strangely colourful flora and fauna to investigate; trees running with monkeys; encounters with elephants; and some of the world’s most stunning golden beaches nearby where I’ve been able to enjoy a more leisurely swim.
I’ve taken a trip across the waves to watch blue whales and dolphins, helped local fishermen with their morning catch, even tracked monkeys and peacocks through nearby ancient ruins. In the evening, I’ve relaxed beneath the warm glow of candlelight while being treated to an enticing local cuisine found only at KumbukRiver and looked out for the silhouette of jungle elephants beneath the moonlight.
Whilst the teardrop shape of Sri Lanka hangs suspended beneath India like the pendant of a necklace, few tears are shed as I bathe within the cool waters of the Kumbukkan River, the babbling eponym of the showpiece eco-resort KumbukRiver I’ve stumbled across during my travels, while enjoying the sunshine of its own miniature island.
Audacious allegorical statement
As I scrutinise the strange edifice for the final time before embarking on my journey home, I wonder whether I’ve stumbled upon perhaps the most audacious allegorical statement ever made in the history of Sri Lankan tourism.
In my capacity as a real estate professional, I find it intriguing if slightly disconcerting in that it blatantly breaks conventional rules on structure, form and function. In creating KumbukRiver, did Dinesh Watawana intend to afford it specific abstract or spiritual meaning through building what is basically a huge wooden elephant using wholly indigenous materials and utilising mainly unemployed local labour?
As I sat beneath the sprawl of a massive Bodhi tree, I finally get the opportunity to level this question at the Managing Director of respected advertising brand strategist, The 7th Frontier, at the end of an uplifting stay at the world’s leading eco-lodge which helped put Sri Lanka on the global tourism map when it won the coveted Travel Oscar at the World Travel Awards.
Set within an exclusive area of Buttala, the 16-acre resort was also named by Times Online as one of the world’s ‘50 Best Green Places,’ while the respected Rough Guides featured it in its publication ‘500 New Ways To See The World.’
Prodigious brand equity
Preferring not to focus too intently on the idiosyncrasies of developing the resort while the war was at its height, Watawana instead emphasises that in becoming Sri Lanka’s highest awarded tourism destination, KumbukRiver has brought with it prodigious brand equity.
I ponder on this while recalling those multifarious countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit in recent years, each boasting its own Unique Selling Proposition, as well as the myriad of endearing people I’ve encountered along the way.
Certainly, during my last teaching placement in Shenzhen Province of China I intuitively knew the parameters of the particular socioeconomic paradigm I was operating in, while my trip to the Russian city of St. Petersburg – built by an army of conscripted peasants at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea – held an altogether different cultural ambience.
As a result of its location in the path of major sea routes, Sri Lanka remains a strategic naval link between West Asia and South East Asia and was originally an important stop along the fabled Silk Road.
Laying claim to a chaotic, colourful history of over 3,000 years, Sri Lanka has been a key centre for Buddhism since ancient times and displays a rich culture ascribable to the many different communities across the island of which Sinhala forms the majority. My personal experience has been that – with a few inevitable exceptions – a certain genial, industrious and spiritual magnanimity pervades the national psyche which has proved to be infectious.
The country is famous for the production and export of tea, coffee, coconuts, rubber and cinnamon, the last of which is native to the country, and the natural beauty of Sri Lanka has earned it the enviable title of ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean.’
The island is laden with lush tropical forests, golden beaches and diverse landscapes which carry a rich biodiversity of plant and animal life, and one tangible result of KumbukRiver’s strategic location has been to act as a sanctuary for wildlife in establishing a rampart against poachers and illegal loggers.
I discover from Watawana – a former award-winning international correspondent, military analyst and brand guru – that KumbukRiver was The 7th Frontier’s first foray into property as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility mandate. Perhaps, then, herein lies the motivation behind the maverick idea-man’s esoteric allusions; namely, a form of patriotism entrenched in the notion of interdependent personal and national responsibility.
George Bernard Shaw declared that: ‘Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.’ For Watawana, globalisation means that countries compete with one another for the attention, respect and confidence of investors, tourists, consumers, media, and foreign governments.
A powerful and positive national brand creates a platform for competitive advantage and it is essential – particularly in post-war Sri Lanka – for countries to take responsibility for how they are perceived by consumers around the world, their strengths and weaknesses, morality and ethics, people and products, as reflected within the brand.
In the case of Sri Lanka, most cities and towns are efficiently connected by the state-run railways and public bus service, while several large-scale infrastructure projects are ongoing across the island in an attempt to revolutionise its road network. A brand new port is also being built in Hambantota by the Chinese Government as a part of its massive aid programme which will help ease congestion in Sri Lankan ports, particularly in Colombo.
Meanwhile, energy in the country is mostly generated by hydro power stations in Central Province and the Government along with various ‘green groups’ has been focusing on eco-friendly energy solutions while enforcing stricter environmental policies within both public and private industry.
Promulgating brand value
So why do the majority of travellers fly over Sri Lanka in order to visit the Maldives – a destination which offers beautiful beaches but has been all but culturally neutered? Why is it that Sri Lanka has thus far failed to properly promulgate its brand value, and foreigners such as myself largely equate the country with exciting cricket? Is it because the majority of indigenous Sri Lankans, despite their impressive levels of education, themselves harbour some kind of collective sense of impoverished purpose?
What must one of the world’s most diversely spectacular islands do in order to take its rightful place on the international stage and ensure that wayfarers such as myself more readily buy into ‘Brand Sri Lanka’ and drop in to take a look? Certainly, those people I know who have visited the island in a business or tourist capacity invariably wish to return at some stage.
The answer, it seems, lies somewhere amidst the ongoing remonstrance of the West and Sri Lanka’s northern neighbour, India, which serve to perpetuate often irrational international notions of post-war Sri Lanka.
Although progress in the Tamil Nadu situation has led to the Government now lifting the state of Emergency, the major point of contention remains a high-visibility constitutional political solution which can serve to neutralise these. This will in turn require skilful brand positioning which can most effectively side-step political polarisation while accelerating the perception, if not the strict actuality, of sincere post-war reconciliation. In effect, headline-grabbing concepts such as KumbukRiver and other standalone eye-openers such as Stardust Beach Hotel, Arugam Bay, should act as a metaphor for Sri Lanka in positioning itself as the destination of choice.
“Countries behave, in many ways, just like brands,” explains Watawana. “State branding can catalyse renewed patriotism within its people, just as it can defuse external political posturing.”
A powerful stimulus
In an era of globalisation and an ever-decreasing world – where consumer expectations, manufacturing processes and corporate capitalisation are increasingly amalgamating – national identity is thus more strongly rooted in culture and heritage than ever before. A strong ‘Brand Sri Lanka’ will attract not just the obvious benefits of foreign investment and tourism but will also act as a powerful stimulus for its exports and, indeed, its cultural values.
“Sri Lanka needs a brand, and there’s a simple reason for this,” states Watawana. “Swiss precision sells watches; Italian style sells leather; Japanese reliability sells cars. Nations may devolve in terms of economic and political processes but their cultures remain as strong as ever.”
It would appear, therefore, that whilst tourism obviously plays a large role in branding a country a truly powerful national brand should be much more holistic in nature. It should emanate from core values which do not necessarily derive solely from the geography of the country. After all, golden sand is not found exclusively in Sri Lanka.
Cultural truth is found in the people of a country – because the people of every nation have a flavour, a texture that is absolutely unique to them. In other words, a national brand is constructed around an understanding of the zeitgeist of a country, one which will resonate loudly within consumers and thereby command longevity.
“To me, establishing a brand’s character and personality leads to recognition and loyalty. Sri Lanka is more than just tea, cricket and tourism… it is absolutely essential that the expectations we create out of ‘Brand Sri Lanka’ are met and exceeded by consumers’ experience of actually visiting Sri Lanka.”
Here then – to my mind – is a key to unravelling the enigma that is KumbukRiver, the travel destination which has so captured the tourist world’s imagination. Ultimately, it would seem to be a bold attempt to embody those idiosyncrasies and perceptions – in effect, bestow on this huge wooden elephant a personality – which is perhaps in part a reflection of the 7th Frontier front-man himself.
As Toomai of the elephants proudly proclaimed, in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’:
I will remember what I was, I am sick of rope and chain –
I will remember my old strength and all my forest affairs.
I will not sell my back to man for a bundle of sugar-cane;
I will go out to my own kind, and the wood-folk in their lairs.
(The writer studied at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and is a Chartered Building Surveyor. He lives in Manchester, England.)