Grand Oriental Hotel on York Street recently underwent a restoration under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” that pledges to restructure underutilised and underperforming state institutions.
The iconic building at the heart of Colombo, which overlooks the harbour, has remained a fine piece of architecture speaking to our country’s colonial past. Built in 1837 as a British military barrack, the iconic building has withstood the test of time, standing strong for almost two centuries.
The adaption of the building from an army hostel into a hotel was undertaken by then Governor Sir Robert Wilmot-Horton, engaging the now renowned architect of the Public Works Department, J.G. Smither, who was also responsible for some of Colombo’s most beautiful colonial remnants, including the National Museum of Colombo, Colombo General Hospital, and the old Colombo Town Hall.
Being the first European-owned hotel in the East, GOH, was reputed worldwide for its plush services, becoming the choice of many illustrious patrons. Officially opening its doors on 5 November 1875, the hotel’s ownership was taken on by Colombo Hotels Co. Ltd., and the property was marketed as the “only fully European-owned and fully equipped hotel in the East” and “managed by experienced Europeans”.
According to a review published in 1907, “The Grand Oriental Hotel (or GOH as it is familiarly known far and wide) was the first of the modern type of imposing hotels erected in the East. With its towering front facing the harbour and the shipping and its main portico separated by only a few yards from the principal landing stage, it occupies both a commanding and convenient position; and passengers by the mail steamers who are passing through the port are especially catered for at this establishment in the very best style…The building contains 154 bedrooms…The hotel is lighted throughout by electricity and all the public rooms and bedrooms are kept cool by means of electric fans”.
Restoration and heritage square
Under “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, the Government is set to facilitate wide-ranging tourism development programmes with the objective of increasing annual tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka.
In order to execute the ambitious goals set out by the mandate of the Government to incorporate a holding company to consolidate state-owned assets and also to restructure these assets that are underutilised to achieve optimum performance, Selendiva Investments Ltd. has been brought on board to strategically implement this revamping of several state-owned assets.
Selendiva Investments CEO Shamahil Mohideen spoke of the strategy adopted moving forward, sharing that the initial strategy is to develop these properties and to implement an operational strategy which will ensure that they reach optimum performance in the future. “(It is) how we can attract the private investors to participate in the development work of the Government, therefore this exercise is expected to enhance the value of the shares which will benefit considerably to attract investment,” he said.
Mohideen commented that with GOH, what we see here is the kick-start of the master development plan. It is but the first step and Selendiva Investments Ltd. is expected to make several underperforming state institutes into viable, profitable, and marketable assets. GOH has been restored to its original grandeur, exhibiting rich colonial architecture in order to facilitate the Government’s policy decision of developing tourism opportunities in the business capital of Colombo, and thereby the restoration supplements the many development projects which are already underway to elevate Colombo’s tourist attractions.
It was noted that the beautification of Colombo city is a key interest of the Government under the “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour” framework, and several key initiatives are underway to achieve rapid development. Mohideen stated that the restructuring of GOH is the first step in creating a heritage square in Colombo, and this new “heritage square” aims to increase the number of tourist stays in Colombo city.
He stated that in order to support and elevate the value of a heritage square, there are infrastructural developments in the area that are underway, sharing that as we see a new city being built towards the shorelines of Colombo, developing the old city of Colombo in par with the new will mark the beginning of a successful era of development, through which Sri Lanka could potentially increase tourist arrivals and compete with the region.
Speaking about gearing themselves for the post-Covid era, he spoke of some of the infrastructural developments underway; the elevated highway will be coming up to the port which is expected to set a certain amount of vibrancy to the city and the surrounding area is to be turned into a pedestal to attract tourists.
He stated that the industry has to take into consideration this grace period to engage in progressing infrastructural developments “because when the market gathers momentum and you are not geared up to meet the competition, then you will lose out on the business”.
Mohideen noted that with regard to the post-pandemic situation, they are maintaining a positive outlook and that they are seeing positive changes not just within the country but also globally. With a successful vaccination rollout, the Government is expecting a major boost in tourist arrivals, and following the tumultuous and stressful past few years the island has experienced, he stated that a considerable recovery is expected soon. He stated it is imperative that we are prepared when the market picks back up and starts gathering momentum.
If you take the tourism in Colombo after the express highways have come in, there is no transit tourism in Colombo, considering how long it takes – give or take a couple of hours to go to the South which is the peak area for tourism, and now we have to create a tourism market in Colombo – a sort of “new market” so we can attract city tourism. There is an abundance in resources and building blocks; it is simply a matter of arranging it in an attractive manner.
While GOH may be the first, it is certainly not alone and will be soon joined by restored properties restructured and repurposed to add to the eventual “heritage square”, Mohideen shared some projects that are already underway, including the Gaffoor Building on the corner of Sir Baron Jayathilake Mawatha which is currently under construction and set to have it completed by the end of this year and in its restoration, they will be creating a boutique hotel there while retaining all of the building’s original colonial integrity, and following suit will be the rest of the heritage buildings in the area.
GOH, a hidden jewel
Waters Edge Chairman, Selendiva Investments Board Director, and veteran hotelier Rohan Fernandopulle shared that GOH was an ideal property to begin with, particularly considering its immense potential and wealth of history. He stated that the restoration process was convoyed with extensive research which they conducted. Reaching into the archives in order to remain true to the building’s structural integrity as a colonial architectural marvel, he said that they place great importance on accuracy and authenticity in reinstating its original grandiose identity.
When walking into the newly restored lobby, one of the notable changes you will witness is the brand new logo proudly on display. Fernandopulle stated that the logo which has undergone several changes over the years has been restored to its original; the very first logo adopted when the hotel first launched. It is but the first look in taking the GOH and their patrons back to the times gone by.
He spoke of the lobby and its reconstruction, stating that when they were studying the floor plans of the original structure, they found that the space was once a grand lobby and so they took initiative to restore the space into its original glory. In the strategic restoration of the property, Fernandopulle pointed out that they took note of some of the more iconic spaces within the property and gave them all prominence.
Noting that with GOH’s history, one of the most iconic locations is their two magnificent banquet halls, he said that there have been generations who have opted to hold their wedding ceremonies in these very halls and going on third or fourth generations of families who wish to keep the tradition alive, and for such patrons, they have taken care to restore the ballrooms to retain their former glory, boasting of some of the elements from its colonial history.
GOH also boasts a number of iconic dining spaces, the iconic Harbour Room, as well as the Tiffin Hut – the hotel’s pastry shop. The Tap Bar and the Blue Leopard night club are also set to welcome guests with their renewed services. Further developments are expected in the upcoming few months, particularly the changes currently being made in creating access to the Tiffin Hut from the outside, with guests no longer having to step all the way into the lobby to access their pastry shop.
Fernandopulle pointed out that while the restorations are underway and they hope to attract tourists once the industry picks back up, what has been equally important is to create a space that is appealing to the locals, sharing that they wish for the locals to come and patronise this area, and hopefully the impending vibrant nightlife and abundance of cultural beauty will attract the populace, which they are certain will, in turn, lead to tourists choosing to also get the best out of what is being made available.
Discussing the way forward and what to expect, both Fernandopulle and Mohideen expressed similar sentiments, stating that as hoteliers they must remain positive and make the best of the situation at hand, whatever it may be. Fernandopulle added that this resilience has been exhibited all throughout the island as those in the industry have made the best of a worst situation; as we all wait for things to get back to what it once was, or perhaps even better, in the meantime things must get done. He said: “One thing I have noticed in Sri Lanka is that when we fall down, we get back up even stronger, so it will be better than what it was and I am certain this time around as well, Sri Lanka will find the way.”
PHOTOS PRADEEP DAMBARAGE