SRI LANKA. It’s a humid, tranquil early afternoon in The Travel Retail Village, a small community of some 100 people and 20 houses, about 60km to the south of Colombo.
The only sounds that can be heard are of children playing, birds singing and (as ever in Sri Lanka) a dog barking. I’m here, along with several other members of our industry to visit a place that serves as a remarkable legacy to the collective generosity of the travel retail community.
The village was funded by travel retail in response to the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that killed hundreds of thousands of people across South Asia. The project focused on rehousing the people of Palliyawatta, a sea-front village that was wiped out by the disaster. The Travel Retail Village was inaugurated on 12 January 2006, followed by a formal opening on 16 March that year.
The funding, at that time unprecedented in our industry, was channelled through the Alpha Sri Lanka Tsunami Relief Fund, the magnificent joint brainchild of local industry executives Paul Topping (then with Alpha Asia/Orient Lanka) and Rakhita Jayawardena (Centaur Travel Retail and King Power Inflight). The project would prove the inspirational template for Hand in Hand for Haiti, a similar industry-based reaction to natural disaster over five years later.
I had been here one time before, on that emotion-laden inauguration day more than six years ago. Today I am back, along with Dubai Duty Free Executive Vice Chairman Colm McLoughlin and his wife Breeda; Abu Dhabi Airports Company Senior Vice President Commercial Dan Cappell; Jonathan Holland & Associates Founder & Managing Director Jonathan Holland and his wife Eleen.
We are all in Colombo to celebrate the wedding of Rakhita Jayawardena’s daughter Aneeka. While we’re here it’s important, we concur, to revisit the project, not only in memory of the tragedy but also to ensure that the industry’s generosity has been put to good and sustained use.
We need have had no worries. Most of the houses – mere shells last time I came here – are beautifully maintained, their gardens beautifully kept and bursting with colour. In the oppressive heat of a late January day the overwhelming, deeply comforting, impression is of plain normality. Washing fills the clotheslines, aromas of cooking waft through the air.
This could be any village in Sri Lanka. But seven years ago this was a traumatized community. The people had lost everything, houses, possessions, in some cases family. Hope, too, was in short supply.
Lest we forget: This video was produced soon after the tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004
Jonathan Holland, Colm McLoughlin, Eleen Holland, Breeda McLoughlin and Dan Cappell take tea with Chryshantha Rathnasekera, the leader of the community and a hero of the post-tsunami period
Even amid the happy, domestic scenes we encounter as we are welcomed into some of the villagers’ houses, there are reminders of that awful day. Inside the house of Chryshantha Rathnasekera, the leader of this village and that of Palliyawatta, the only photos are of recent times – like all his neighbours, any from earlier years were lost in the tsunami.
Where once there was trauma and tragedy, now there is normality and domesticity
Chryshantha Rathnasekera is a quiet hero of those times. Together with Rakhita Jayawardena and Paul Topping he helped bond and inspire a shattered community to believe in a better future. We take tea at his house with his family and watch, entranced, as one of his daughters, Vinidu Rochana, an award-winning dancer, puts on a performance for us, accompanied by Chryshantha on guitar and her mother on vocals. It’s a lovely moment.
Chryshantha, as always, is gracious and deeply thankful to the travel retail industry for what it did for his people. This most modest of men asks us to convey those thanks, however and whenever we can. He accompanies us on a walk around the community where we meet several other villagers. All are welcoming and all are enjoying the better times that have come to this nation since the end of the long-running war.
Not everything is perfect; while the individual houses are pristine, the communal facilities – the Linda Hopkins Memorial Community Centre and the Dubai Duty Free Medical Centre – look neglected. So does the playing field. The foliage around the Travel Retail Village inauguration plaque and stone could do with tidying.
But they are small quibbles. Today gives us all reassurance that the industry’s money was indeed well spent. Devastation has been replaced by domesticity; horror by happiness. All is well in the Travel Retail Village.
The house funded by Centaur Travel Retail’s Rakhita Jayawardena, a driving force behind the project
Dan Cappell and Jonathan Holland outside the house funded by King Power Group (HK)