A Founding Father of Tourism in Sri Lanka
Herbert Cooray
An industry visionary and founder of Jetwing

A simple man driven by a desire to succeed while safeguarding the interests of his workers, Herbert Cooray was a gentle giant whose vision and determination built a unique brand marrying tourism with a culture of Sri Lankan hospitality. Herbert followed his father’s footsteps into the construction industry where he built offices and hotels. Encouraged by a visiting tour operator in 1973 Herbert built his first hotel, the Blue Oceanic Beach Hotel with 6 rooms before embarking on a spree of buying and building hotels across the island. His contribution to the Sri Lankan tourism industry saw him launch Jetwing Travels which soon became a leading player in the industry showcasing the beauty of Sri Lanka to inbound tourists. Herbert Cooray can be identified as one of the few Sri Lankans in the tourism industry who made a significant contribution to tourism in the island.

Compiled by Tina Edward Gunawardhana with the kind permission of Shiromal Cooray Author of the biography of Herbert Cooray.

The early days

Nawalage Gerald Herbert Cooray was born in 1929 to Jeramius and Lucy Cooray. His father was a successful building contractor and Herbert’s early childhood was spent in Kosgama.The second of three children, Herbert had his education initially at St. Benedict’s College and then subsequently at St Joseph’s College. A keen student and avid cricket fan, Herbert after completing his studies at St Joseph’s College, progressed to the University of Ceylon where he transferred to the Peradeniya campus in 1946. Herbert had a slight rebellious streak running through him and during his time at university was quickly swept up by the nationalist, anti-imperial feeling that prevailed amongst the young Ceylonese intellectuals. Herbert was considered a highly visible campus activist and a candidate for president of the Student’s Council. He was also a member of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party, a Trotskyite Communist Movement which he joined in 1952. After a fraught battle Herbert won the presidency of the Students Council much to the consternation of Sir Ivor Jennings, the Vice Chancellor who had to now deal with Herbert’s unionist demands. Just before his final exams Herbert dropped out of university and attended the Law College for a brief spell. Uncertain about his career choice, Herbert then left Law College and embarked on a teaching position at Gurukula Vidyalaya in Kelaniya.

Life in the corporate world

Teaching lacked stimulation for Herbert, so he decided to join the mercantile sector and joined Harrison and Corssfields as an Insurance Executive. He relished his work and the freedom of having an income. An instinctive meritocrat from his young days, Herbert had found his calling. It was 1956 and the transformation from student socialist to successful entrepreneurial capitalist had started. With his first salary and commission, Herbert bought a Rolex watch which he wore for over 40 years before gifting it to his son Hiran.

The family man

Worried by their restless son, Herbert’s parents were keen to see him married. His job as an insurance salesman made him a good marriage prospect and as was customary in those days marriages were by arrangement and Herbert received several proposals. In 1957, just before his 28th birthday Herbert married Josephine Perera at the All Saints Church Borella followed by a reception at the Galle Face Hotel. The newly weds began their married life at Herbert’s home in Ragama. However with the advent of the birth of their first child Shiromal, the couple moved into a house gifted by Josephine’s father in Dankotuwa where they lived until Herbert built his own home in Welisara in 1962. Bitten by wanderlust, Herbert who had already visited Moscow as a member of the LSSP youth delegation decided to embark on another voyage with his two friends sans their young families. The trio bought one way tickets to England and after touring the British Isles took the ferry to France. There Herbert purchased a new Peugeot 203 which transported them across Eastern Europe, the USSR, Afghanistan and finally India where a ferry carried them to Sri Lanka.

The entrepreneur

In 1961 following his father’s footsteps Herbert set up his first company NJ Cooray Builders Ltd. He operated out of a single room in the Singer building on Chatham Street in Fort. With growing success the office then moved to a suite on the third floor of the Macan Marker building where Herbert set about stoically building up his empire. Herbert’s hallmark was the good quality of the buildings he constructed. He ensured the best materials were used and built his reputation as a good reliable constructor. During this time, his family had expanded with the birth of his son Hiran. Some of the quality buildings constructed by Herbert were the Ceylon Tobacco Company offices, Shaw Wallace and Hedges, John Keells Headquarters and the cement factory in Kankasanthurai. Herbert also built the Seashells Hotel in Negombo and the Geoffrey Bawa designed Triton Hotel as well as the Nilaweli Beach Hotel in Trincomalee. In a bid to balance family and work commitments, Herbert built a house in Barnes Place in the heart of Colombo and moved his family and office there.

Herbert the hotelier

In the course of his business Herbert forged a link with pioneering resort hotelier GEB Milhuisen. When Milhuisen brokered a deal with Vingresor, a Swedish tour operator to build a hotel in Negombo, he challenged Herbert to construct the 40 room Sea Shells Hotel in a matter of just months. Herbert duly completed the task much to the delight of his clients. It was suggested to Herbert that instead of constructing hotels for others, perhaps he should consider doing the same for himself! Herbert followed this advice by building the Blue Oceanic Beach Hotel, a modest six-room hotel, before going on to create one of the largest, and most respected hotel chains and tourism organisations in the country. Indeed, he ranks as not only one of the pioneers of the industry, but a veritable giant who, as an individual, created his own empire in an industry in which all the other big players were divisions of large corporations with far greater resources to plough into their operations.

A meeting with Dieter Feld, a German tour operator persuaded Herbert to start a travel agency of his own. Rising to the challenge Herbert set up Jet Travels in 1981. With the passage of time Milhuisen who was retiring began selling off his hotels. Herbert bought the Seashells Hotel which he had built previously. Vingresor, happy with this development gave Herbert more business. Subsequently, Jet Travels became Jetwing Travels and a new chapter in Herbert’s life began to take shape. Herbert had a great eye for location and soon his portfolio of hotels began to grow from hilltop to beachside, thus expanding his empire. Despite the country being in the grip of terror for three decades, Jetwing weathered the storm and emerged with Herbert’s son Hiran heading Jetwing Hotels while Herbert’s daughter Shiromal took over Jetwing Travels.
Herbert’s legacy to Sri Lanka

In 2008 Herbert passed away at the age of 79. Herbert’s vast legacy, borne through his vision, resilience and the courage of his convictions in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, is now in a position to bear fruit in the manner he had always envisioned. Herbert’s success was propagated by his passion for his country and the pleasure he derived from show-casing it to the rest of the world. His winning combination of entrepreneurial flair, genuine warmth, friendliness and a hospitable nature drew people to him. An innately humble and compassionate man with a strong sense of ethics and family values, Herbert Cooray strove tirelessly to not only build a tourism empire but also to position Sri Lanka as a sought after travel destination.