Who Pioneered Boutique Hotels Sri Lanka- Saman Villas or Georffery Dobbs


by Daya Ratnayake,

Chairman & managing Director, Saman Villas Limited

The leader of the opposition was misled when in parliament he gave the honor to Geoffrey Dobbs.

An article by Mr. Maheen Senanayake in the Sunday Island of 5th January captioned Geoffrey Dobb : true to The last Samurai, when he quotes Dobbs "I have done a lot for this country……………………………I had started the boutique hotel craze and it has widely caught up today. I started with the Sun House 17 years ago. And everybody who stayed with me wanted to do this too". Then again the Sunday Island of 12th January in the feature column People and Events by Nan, it is recorded "Geoffrey Dobbs started the idea of boutique hotels in the Galle Fort which idea spread all over the Island".

Saman Villas – Sri Lanka’s first

Boutique Hotel

Saman Villas opened operations as a boutique hotel on Christmas day, 1995 after its initial brochure was released at the largest travel fair in the world, ITB on 4th March 1995.

Many years later, we came to know of the existence of two small guest houses in Galle operated by a foreigner known as Sun House and Dutch House. As the name implies they were houses with bedrooms. These guest houses never bothered our marketing team because we were not competing with guest houses. After recent publicity on Geoffrey Dobbs and his Sun House and Dutch House our marketing team looked at their websites and did some further investigations. Sun House in its website home page header claims Sri Lanka’s original boutique hotel. The Dutch House website claims its sister property Sun House is Sri Lanka’s original boutique hotel.

Truth about Boutique Hotels

We spoke to past and present officials of the Ceylon Tourist Board (now known as Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority) to verify the truth. Mr. Dobbs claims that he started Sun House 17 years ago. That makes it 1997, more than a year after Saman Villas opened. Tourist Board officials remember that latter part of 1990’s or in 2000 he was operating a guest house without a license. Later on the advice of Tourist Board he registered Sun House as a guest house and obtained a valid liquor license. The Dutch House is not known to have been registered with the Tourist Board. In May 2007 Sun House was officially classified at a slightly higher level as a Boutique Villa, but has never been recognized as a Boutique Hotel. Guest Houses existed in Sri Lanka long before Geoffrey Dobbs was born.

Development of Saman Villas

In the first half of 1990’s the concept of boutique hotels was slowly taking route in a few popular Asian destinations and some islands in the Pacific Ocean. About this time Saman Villas was designed as a 72 roomed 4-star hotel. The plans were rejected by me and Mr. Geevaka de Zoysa , the newly appointed architect was taken to Koh Samui (Thailand) and Bali (Indonesia) to introduce the new concept that was evolving. Outcome was Sri Lanka’s first boutique hotel with 27 luxury suites spread out on the most beautiful location on the South-West coasts of Sri Lanka. Though opened for business on 25th December 1995 it was introduced to the local market on 13th February 1996 with full page supplements in the Island and Daily News.

Marketing Boutique Hotels

Saman Villas, like standard style hotels could not just wait for travel agents to buy rooms. Sri Lankan travel trade has never marketed all-suite luxury boutique hotels. For Saman Villas own success it had to develop new marketing techniques and a strategy. Ten months before the opening, a brochure with real photos of an operating hotel was printed to introduce Saman Villas to the foreign and local travel trade at ITB in Berlin, on March 4, 1995. The same year, the only marketing association of small luxury hotels invited Saman Villas to its fold and on January 1, 1996 it became a full member of this exclusive group of 204 hotels worldwide known as Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Additionally advertisements in foreign travel magazines and news items in magazines and newspapers firmly placed Sri Lanka as a luxury destination in the world. In 1996 Saman Villas was the only Sri Lankan managed hotel which could be booked from anywhere in the world via a Global Distribution System. Today a total of 153 travel agents and tour operators worldwide sell Saman Villas through brochures and websites.

A concept which no investor wanted to risk his money on, at the peak of the war on terrorism and the Board of Directors of a Development Bank refused to lend its money, became an instant success generating profits in the first year of operation. Success of Saman Villas paved the way for the boutique hotel craze and growth of tourism to this day.

Community Service and

Contribution to Tourism

Saman Villas contribution to Sri Lanka Tourism and the economy extended beyond boutique hotels. We shared our profits with the community undertaking projects throughout Sri Lanka. Details are available in the Saman Villas website. Saman Villas with the Ceylon Tourist Board initiated a seminar on Coast Conservation to address concerns of the hotel industry. We were supported by Sri Lanka’s most qualified person at the time on coastal management Dr. (now Prof.) Samantha Hettiarachchi. Development set-back lines at the time were discriminatory. For example, in the Panadura-Kalutara Coastal Zone houses were allowed at 10 meters from the edge of the beach, commercial buildings at 40 meters and hotels at 60 meters. These standards were neither scientific nor rational. End result of the seminar was a unified standard for all buildings. The revised standard for the Panadura-Kalutara Coastal Zone which is applicable to this day is 35 meters. Hotels had additional 25 meters which resulted in construction of additional hotel rooms particularly in the heavily populated South-West coast where land is scarce.

Travelers, both in Sri Lanka and overseas know the truth as to the origin of boutique hotels. The recognition, granted by exclusive Small Luxury Hotels of the World confirms Saman Villas to be the first luxury boutique hotel in Sri Lanka.

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