Gitanjali Chakravarthy Haaland : Women friendly environments in tourism | Sunday Observer

Gitanjali Chakravarthy Haaland : Women friendly environments in tourism

11 August, 2019
Gitanjali Chakravarthy Haaland receiving the Woman Leadership Award
Gitanjali Chakravarthy Haaland receiving the Woman Leadership Award

Gitanjali Chakravarthy Haaland can vividly remember how her grandmother took her one special day to the then Hotel Lanka Oberoi. This visit was different from others. They were not there on vacation but to observe the effort and energy that went into making a hotel stay smooth and memorable for everyone.

The hotel staff was dressed in suits, always on alert of what the guests needed, and that day 18-year-old Gitanjali saw everything in a new light. Then, she embarked on a new career.

Now after over 30 years in the hotel industry she is being recognised as a leader for women. She was presented a Woman Leadership Award by World Women Leadership Congress and Awards last month, and when Sunday Observer sat down with Gitanjali she said the recent recognition has motivated her to do more for the industry and women.

“My childhood dream was to be a doctor,” she said.

It is natural for a young child to aspire to be a doctor. But when she fell short of a few marks to get into the medical faculty Gitanjali did not want to spend another year attempting to get through.

She was not an alien to the hotel industry. Her father was a General Manager in a hotel. So, when she wanted to start work early, her grandmother took her into the Oberoi and Gitanjali went on to create history. Now, she will soon take up the position as the General Manager of Hilton Yala Resort & Spa. This will make her Sri Lanka’s first female General Manager at Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

The mature professional has the same attitude she had three decades ago when she started her first job. To give it ‘her best’ and make memorable memories along the way.

Indeed, there’s little to imagine of her capabilities in the industry. In the early nineties topping her batch at the Ceylon Hotel School and School of Tourism she received many awards including the Colombo Hilton Trophy for the Most Outstanding Management Diploma Holder of the year.

She smiles when she thinks about it. “It’s really great to be a part of Hilton a few decades down the line”.

Gitanjali said that none of her achievements came easy for her. She had to make sacrifices along the way like leaving her seven-year-old daughter with her mother when she took up a position overseas.

“But that is the challenge of leaving a mark in this world. No one becomes great by doing easy things. Hard work and passion help to create history,” she says.

For Gitanjali it is meeting new and different people everyday that motivates her to wake up and start her day as a new one.

The tourism industry in Sri Lanka is a major foreign income generator for Sri Lanka. With over 300,000 people directly involved in tourism, experts say only about 10-12 per cent of those in the hotel sector are women.

Gitanjali is determined to make changes to this reality by creating women friendly environments in tourism businesses. During her tenure as the General Manager of luxury resort Ulagalla by Uga Escapes she managed to increase the number of women employees from four to 22 at the time of her leaving. All these women were from the community living around Ulagalla. She strongly believes that women participation in the tourism sector will help to elevate the industry.

When the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks left a grim mark in the $ 4.4 billion revenue generating industry, Gitanjali knew there was no time to rest.

The attacks came in a crucial time. Sri Lanka was just ranked the best destination to travel in 2019 by Lonely Planet. The bombers targeted tourists and church goers affecting the already volatile industry.

“But Sri Lanka is bouncing back faster than other terror-hit destinations. Hotels individually took measures to tighten security, and the government took several steps to restore the situation,” she said.

However, Sri Lanka’s state tourism authorities should look seriously at marketing the island together with the private sector. Private companies are burdened with attempting to promote their product and also Sri Lanka as a destination, she said. Also, “Sri Lanka has to be marketed as a year-round destination. When it’s raining in the East, weather in the South is favourable, and vice-versa.

“Therefore, tourists can come anytime of the year. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is still focused on seasonal and off-seasonal promotions. It is time we changed this.”

With much yet to be done and accomplished the mother-of-one does not forget to look after herself. For two hours a day she hits the gym and exercises while listening to her favourite songs, and on Sundays she is at the University of Colombo where she is reading for Master of Tourism Economics and Hotel Management.