Military tourism by air is slowly but surely taking off
Post-war, the Sri Lanka military is adapting for tourism. The Navy and Air Force have been especially active in re purposing ships, planes and helicopters for civilian use. Two specific civilian services are the Jetliner cruise ship berthed in the Colombo Harbour and the Helitours air transport service. These two services are now in almost daily operation.
During the war the Navy Jetliner was a top target for the LTTE. Now it is a top destination for blue-chip companies and organisations. This multiple-storied ship is docked in the Colombo Harbour, near the Pettah clock tower entrance. Civilians can enter this formerly high security area to book a tour and take the Jetliner out for a sunset cruise, with 350 of their closest friends. But it wasn’t always like this.
During the war this Jetliner was a lifeline to the north. It was capable of ferrying over 3,000 troops from Trincomalee to Jaffna and large quantities of supplies. As such, it was also a target for the LTTE. It saw action — shots came near the Jetliner but never reached its bow. During some missions the ship was escorted by gunships and helicopters. It was also equipped with its own complement of guns, hand held missiles and about 150 soldiers to operate its defenses. Today, however, Captain Nilantha Heenatigala is more likely to inquire about what equipment you’d like at the bar.
“This service started in January. We expected about four events a month. This month alone we have 11,” he said.
One such event was held in March. It was well attended but compromised by poor food and beverage service, services meant to be provided by the Navy. Bookings aside, the service does still have some hiccups when it comes to delivering five star service to match the facilities.
And the Jetliner is an excellent ship. It is large and has ample room for hundreds of guests in the lounge, Club Room, dining hall or on two decks. These have facilities for sound and light, though at times additional generators may be required. The facilities are spotless and well maintained and the ship itself is a recent lease from an Indonesian company. It can cruise at a top speed of 28 knots (over 30 MPH), burning commensurate amounts of fuel. Being a military ship, it has all the required clearances to sail in our highly secured waters.
The most idyllic package is perhaps the sunset cruise, comprising 1.5 hours at sea and 3.5 hours at harbour. This costs over Rs. 400,000. That price can be divided among 125, 175 or 350 people, costing Rs. 2,300 per head for 175 guests, for example. The cheapest package is about Rs. 200,000, comprising five hours in the harbour, without sailing anywhere. The ship is also available on longer charters. You can sail up to Galle for around Rs.2.5 million, for example. The service is by no means an outing for the family, but it is affordable for companies or large groups.
Of which there are many. In just a few hours aboard the boat there were over four groups of local and international companies inquiring about the ship’s services and being happily obliged with tours. Captain Heenatigala, however, was clear that this remained a project in the ultimate service of the military and nation.
“This vessel has to run,” he said. “If the government wants to transport a battalion at any time, we can do that. This ship is available as a contingency, for any disaster, to evacuate people in cases like a tsunami, for example. It is also able to assist anywhere in South Asia.”
In this way the government is making some of its military/emergency facilities somewhat self-sufficient. Is it breaking even? “We’re not losing money, not making money,” the Captain said. So the ship continues to run, for security and for fun.
Air Force Tourism
Another type of military tourism is by air. The Air Force maintains a variety of aircraft and highly trained personnel. Recently these formerly military flights have been opened to the public and anyone can book a seat. Simply visit the Air Force office across from the Cinnamon Lakeside and the capable staff will fill out a ticket in about half an hour. In the morning you can leave from Ratmalana Airport and be in Trincomalee after 40 minutes in the air.
The service is not seamless — one test flight was an hour late for example — but, most importantly, the flights are safe and regular. According to Group Captain Janaka Nanayakkara, the Helitours service has been operating for almost a year. It does flights to China Bay airport in Trincomalee for anyone and flights to Palaly in Jaffna for citizens or foreigners with Ministry of Defence clearance.
The planes themselves are AN-32 turboprops, comfortable but still obviously military aircraft. They have only four windows and a back bay that opens. On a test flight there were only six tourists and all were seated near a window, which is worthwhile. The experience is remarkable as the plane flies at a constant viewing altitude.
On the test flight check-in time was 6:30 am and the flight arrived at 9:50, about an hour late. This is still incredibly convenient. At Rs. 4,100 for a one-way ticket, it is also affordable, especially for those whose time is money. One-way to Jaffna is Rs. 9,550. A round-trip to either destination is double, with flights leaving Colombo at 8 AM and returning in the afternoon.
Helitours, like the Jetliner, remains ultimately in service of the military. On each flight there are Air Force and military personnel traveling alongside tourists and business people. All involved are extremely courteous and professional and it is a slightly odd but pleasant experience. There are two professional checks, but much less obtrusive than a regular airport.
Travelling to the old ‘Colombo Airport’ is actually like stepping back in time to a more casual and personal age of air travel. It is quiet, uncrowded and one walks across the runway to the plane. Delays aside, the Helitours service is a novel, fast and ultimately breathtaking way to go.
In this and many ways the armed forces are adapting to peace, serving civilians and maintaining themselves. Available services include the ship and plane charters as well as canal boat rides in Colombo, holiday homes, etc. There are hiccups, especially in terms of adapting to regular customers, but both the cruise ship and flight service are entirely operational. The facilities are pleasant and safe and the people, while not necessarily trained in hospitality, are unfailingly hospitable.
This is, in many ways, true to the character of the Sri Lankan armed forces. War was certainly not pretty, but Sri Lanka has emerged from this decades long conflict with an extremely capable military. This military remains ready for war, but they are also moving into more leisurely pursuits. There are certainly very few armed forces in the world that let anyone ride their ships or planes, but it is an experiment the Sri Lankan military has begun. For civilians, it may be worth a try.