de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). Cooking the Books. LMD. March 2007. Page 176. Volume 13, Issue 8. ISSN 1391-135X.
A recent festival in the South held many lessons for tourism.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on some commendable lateral thinking

With tourism taking a bloody beating with one of its worst ever years, it would not be surprising if hoteliers tinkered with the books to post a better performance. During the middle of January I was in Galle to witness a team of hoteliers doing just that. However, there was nothing un-toward going on. There was no cooking the books of account, to boost reported profits. On the contrary it was a very honest although extremely creative exercise to boost reported profits.

The Galle Literary Festival was staged between the 10th of January and the 14th of January. I reckon this period of four of five days was one of the most exciting four days or so I have spent in Sri Lanka for some time. Some of the world’s best known names in writing were there including many Sri Lankans who have achieved international recognition. The 2006 Man Booker prize winner Kiran Desai, Pulitzer finalist Suketu Mehta, Mark Tully and William Dalrymple known for their ‘outsider insider’ accounts of India, biographers Victoria Glendinning, Yasmine Gooneratne and David Robson, novelists Romesh Gunasekara, Elmo Jayawardena, Carl Muller, Ashok Ferrey, etc. The long list of luminaries was exceptional with a jaw dropping star studded galaxy of stars from the literary world.

But does it work to generate business? Well it certainly did. On Saturday night, finding a room in Galle proved to be tough. So tough that the famous wildlife photographer Rukshan Jayawardene had to choose between staying in the staff quarters of one of the hotels or sleeping on the beach. This, was in a period of low occupancy. Many people had to contend themselves with a day trip as rooms just were not available.

The buzz at the literary festival and the meeting of minds was enough to send anyone with a literary bent into a ‘high’ or state of intoxication. But to me, it was just as exciting to learn a little more about the business angle. Tellingly, this was not an initiative sponsored by a state institution. It was private sector initiative, which was run ‘light and tight’, with the un-ambiguous goal of generating room nights. Room nights make money and literary festivals generate room nights. So grandma did good when she encouraged you to read.

Presiding at many of the events was the multi-talented Nury Vittachi, who seems to be the godfather of Asian literary festivals. A literary festival organised by him in Hong Kong was the role model for restaurateur Janet deNeefe to organise one in Ubud after the Bali bombings devastated tourism. This idea was picked up in turn by Geoffrey Dobbs, the king of ideas in Sri Lankan high end tourism. A little bit of homework was called for and he dispatched his business manager Libby Southwell, an author herself, to study the Ubud Literary Festival. Besides observing the mechanics of running the festival, they also networked extensively. Dobbs and Co already had a good network amongst the media. The properties they run which includes the Sun House and Dutch House had over the years attracted a steady stream of international travel writers and journalists. This included Sukethu Mehta the author of the award winning ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found’. Sukethu on a previous visit to Sri Lanka had described the Cinnamon Suite at the Sun House as the most beautiful room in the world.

Working with the Festival Director Libby Southfeld was Ameena Hussein from the Perera Hussein Publishing House, Nazreen Sansoni from Barefoot, Ashok Ferrey and Rory Spowers. The Sri Lankans involved were no doubt well connected as well with people in international literary circles. Nevertheless, I suspect it is unlikely that a truly Sri Lankan only effort would have met with the success that the first festival had in inviting an outstanding array of authors. So much had been gained by welcoming what the Galle expatriate community had to offer. Working as a mutually beneficial partnership had everyone getting stronger and more profitable.

Characteristically, a touch of Sri Lankan sour grapes was inevitable. One of the national dailies carried an article by a Sri Lankan painting the festival as elitist and smacking of neo-colonialism. Oh really. Perhaps it is better for hotels to shut down and for people to be out of work. Everyone from the trishaw drivers to sellers of clothes on the beach depends on a vibrant tourism economy. Any initiative which drives the economy, especially one which also allows an intellectual infusion should be encouraged. The allegation of elitism is missing the point. Private sector initiatives have to be profit motivated. Although the festival itself is not run as a profit making event, those supplying support services especially through the provision of accommodation, must be motivated to participate through profit making motives. This may mean that everybody cannot afford to attend it. But there is no reason why a state institution or the academia cannot have a parallel initiative for an affordable literary festival. The consumer can choose, just as much as we choose with everything else we spend our money on.

It would be better if we learnt the positives from the Galle Literary Festival. The lateral thinking, the ability for a small group of people to make a big impact, the benefits of Sri Lankans working with the expatriate community to grow economically and intellectually. The lessons to be learnt from the Galle Literary Festival for private business may be more useful than what you learnt from the books you read in school.

Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.