Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe expressed admiration for the late Mr. Merrill J. Fernando, a prominent business figure and founder of Sri Lanka’s renowned ‘Dilmah Tea’ brand. He praised Mr. Fernando’s valuable contributions to the country’s tourism industry.
Sri Lanka’s business icon and founder of the renowned ‘Dilmah Tea’ brand, Mr. Merrill J. Fernando, received heartfelt admiration from President Ranil Wickremesinghe for his significant contributions to the country’s tourism industry. The President commended Mr. Fernando’s invaluable role in promoting Boutique Hotels and culinary tourism, elevating the hospitality landscape in Sri Lanka.
During an event honoring the winners of the esteemed Bocuse d’Or 2023 culinary competition, President Wickremesinghe spoke fondly of Merrill J. Fernando’s legacy. He expressed deep sadness at the void left by Mr. Fernando’s absence and recognized the personal loss the nation felt after his passing.
Merrill J. Fernando’s impact on the tea industry is widely recognized, but President Wickremesinghe emphasized that his contributions to the tourism sector were equally significant. He reminisced about their past consultations on economic matters during his tenure as Prime Minister in 2002. During those discussions, concepts like expanding tourism and transforming planters’ bungalows into Boutique Hotels were explored, with Merrill showing keen interest despite not being directly involved in the industry at the time.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe further commented;
There’s a void in our room. We all feel it. These functions would not have been possible without Merrill, and we meet here today for the first time without him. We all feel the loss, we all feel the sadness. For me, it’s also been a personal loss. All the articles on Merrill referred to the tea industry, Dilma, and what he had done. He made a similar contribution to the tourism industry; our hotels would not have been the same without him. I remember in the beginning, it was when I was Prime Minister in 2002, Merrill was one of those within a small circle. I used to consult on economic matters. That was the time Adrian Zecha had come. He was talking about tourism, how we could expand tourism.
And there was a Geoffrey Dobbs who came along talking about Boutique Hotels. This concept of Boutique Hotels came on how we could turn the planters’ bungalows into Boutique Hotels. Merrill used to follow it though he was not in the industry. And then I lost the election, I didn’t think we could see Boutique Hotels again, and one day Merrill came out and said, ‘Look, I am starting ‘Tea Trails,’’ and he invited me to one of the first Boutique Hotels, and he established such a standard that we can all be proud of him.
Later on, he went to Cape Weligama and set another standard. So you have to remember, not merely the contribution he made to tea, but also the contribution he’s made to tourism. He started the hospitality school in Kalkudah. I think I have been lucky enough as a politician. For 40 odd years, I have been going around the country and eating different types of food. Yesterday I was in Anuradhapura, and we had a delicious tank fish curry. Some time back, I was in Trincomalee, and they gave me Biriyani with Venison. It was quite delicious. There was a time when you talked of Seaweed. I could tell a story that goes back about another 40 years when the hygiene standards outside the hotels were not that high. Today it is good everywhere, even in our small restaurants. It was not so in the 80s.
We once went to the Kalpitiya restaurants, which had the best crab curry on the West coast. So I went along with a few others, and we had this delicious crab curry. I think that was true. It was the best you could get on the West coast. Afterwards, we had a Seaweed jelly. This Seaweed jelly was made by the Muslim ladies from a recipe left behind by the Portuguese. So if you go there to Kalpitiya, you can learn how to make Seaweed jelly. Before I left, I asked them why they don’t have a white tablecloth, why they had one that was a yellow mustardy colour. And then they told me that the tablecloth hadn’t visited the laundry for some time. So despite these risks, it’s really worth going around Sri Lanka. It’s how you can make fusion food.
So, I think that’s one of the reasons why we are now on a new journey. Because once we hit rock bottom and we are bankrupt, and as we are coming out of it, we still need sufficient foreign exchange. All of that won’t come easily. Some of the debt carries with it repayment terms and investments, while one source that doesn’t incur debt is tourism; through tourism, you can earn this money.
So the question is, how much can we earn from tourism which dropped last year? What will it be this December and next year? We want to go ahead. 2.5 million tourists are not enough. We are now aiming for 5 million, of which 2.5 million should be high-end tourists. Indian estimates are that Sri Lanka can take up to 10 million tourists, most of them from Asia and the Indian Ocean region.
So there will be a change. But we have to ensure that we go upmarket. If you want, today you find a fast turnover staff. Most of the young people here who took part in the competition will most probably be serving outside of Sri Lanka in about another three years’ time. If you want to keep them, we have to at least match the salaries of the Maldives hotels. If you have to match the salaries of the Maldives hotels, then you must charge the same as Maldives hotels. To charge so, you must give that service, and that is essential.
Now, if you’re looking at 5 million tourists or 10 million tourists, there have to be different types of tourism. And one that we can do well is culinary tourism. And that’s what we should focus on. Not merely in our hotels, but any place. And if you’re having culinary tourism, remember, bulk is going to come from Asia. So there has to be fusion food from different parts of Asia, not only Europe. That’s what we should focus on.
Therefore, I think we must now train more and more personnel in the hospitality field, especially in the field of tourism and culinary tourism. So let’s get ready for it. I have been talking with some of my planners and others, and we feel, firstly, we have to upgrade our hotel school, and it must become a genuine hotel school. But more than that, together with the private sector, the travel industry, the hotel industry, the government is prepared to start a culinary school just for that, for large numbers. But you can’t stand on the side and say, let the government do it. Then you know what you will get. So, therefore, if you all get together, we will plan that. And some of the private culinary schools are there. I said we’ll see how we can help them too. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a government school or a private school, as long as they do it. We are prepared to go ahead and back them. I will talk with the industry.
We’ll be announcing a new tourism plan called ‘Visit Sri Lanka,’ which will most probably be released in August or September. We are giving the final touches, but you are ready to go along. So at this stage, first, I have to thank all those, especially all of you who have organized this competition this time, and you’ve been doing it for a long time. I hope Bocuse d’Or will not only be organizing the competitions here, but they will also help us to set up a good culinary school. You all are always welcome to raise our standards. There is a good future. Let’s train more and more people, and let’s all get used to it. Not merely in hotels, but the time will come when most of you will be running restaurants or supplying food. And that’s what the trade has to be. Services have taken over. This is now an important part of our economy. And like an army, the travel industry also marches on. It travels on its stomach. So let’s look after the stomach. Others will look after the tablecloth.
Bocuse d’Or 2023 competition is an esteemed culinary event of global repute, which serves as a beacon for showcasing the exceptional talents and skills of renowned chefs from around Sri Lanka. Previous Bocuse d’Or winners have been victorious in representing Sri Lanka on the international stage in Lyon, France. The judging panel of Bocuse d’Or 2023 comprised esteemed culinary experts, including the globally renowned Chef Otto Weibel and Chef Frank Widmann, evaluating the dishes based on their exquisite taste, impeccable presentation, and outstanding originality.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor to the President Sagala Ratnayaka presented trophies and certificates to the Bocuse d’Or 2023 Competition winners.
First Lady Prof. Maithree Wickramasinghe, Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor to the President Sagala Ratnayaka, The French Ambassador to Sri Lanka Jean-François Pactet, President of Bocuse d’Or Sri Lanka Rohan Fernandopulle, CEO of Dilmah Tea Dilhan C. Fernando esteemed culinary experts and personnel representing the hospitality industry attended the event.