The legend that was P.A. Ediriweera


by Harischandra Gunaratna


Piyadasa Ariyasena Ediriweera, a young man from Ahangama, began his meteoric career when he joined the "Daily News" as its Ahangama correspondent in 1934. He liked to write about tourists and published many stories about foreign visitors to this country and their experiences. At that time tourism was not developed and most visitors sailed to Colombo on passenger liners and drove to places of interest in taxis or coaches.

From Lake House he moved to the then British-owned "Times of Ceylon" serving

as a war correspondent during World War 11. He made many important contacts as a result, some of who helped him along in later years when he ventured into the tourism business.

A man with a vision, Ediriweera foresaw the potential in tourism and lost no time in starting his own travel company, Ceylon Tours, which acquired a fine reputation and this week celebrates the 64th anniversary of its founding.

Today Ceylon Tours is a leading travel company serving different markets.

In those days it was in the Colombo harbour that the tourism pioneers of the calibre of P.A.Ediriweera, Don Liyanage, Jim Wanigatunge, Eustace Ranasinghe, Charlie Nanayakkara, Vere de Mel and Amara Amaratunge started the ‘bread and butter’ tourism industry serving excursion traffic. They built this business brick by brick, stone by stone.

Ediriweera was only 31 years old when he joined another pioneer, Justin Kotelawela (Sir John’s brother), to float Ceylon Tours in 1946. The same year he, with Kotelawela, visited New York forging close connections with Americans he had known during his war correspondent days.

Best known to his Colombo buddies as "Ediri" and Eddie to his foreign friends, his war time colleagues on the New York Times gave him a warm welcome and a room at the Waldof Astoria where he was able to meet the elite in the travel industry in America at a cocktail party hosted in their honour.

Ediriweera and Kotelawela seized the opportunity to show the visitors black and white photos of places of tourist interest in this island which the Americans knew mostly for Ceylon tea.

They splashed some newspaper ads which they thought would appeal to the Americans with catchy slogans such as "Visit Ceylon, the resplendent Island. We have NO Coca Cola but offer you virgin Ceylon Tea". Another proclaimed ``Come, relax in Ceylon. We DON’T have TV, but will give you palm fringed beaches, sunkissed the year around."

Those ads worked almost magically and Ediriweera and Kotelawela were overjoyed as their travel offices were inundated with inquiries. Business flourished and Ediriweera in 1949 started hiring cars from Bobby Arnolda, with an office at the Grand Oriental Hotel, which Ediriweera purchased later. Eventually he expanded his fleet with Bedford buses and Dodge, Desoto and Chevrolet cars

Though their business was growing with word of mouth publicity, the Ceylon Tours founders felt there was more potential for growth and they thought of new ways to bring Americans to Ceylon.

In 1954 Ediriweera flew on board a TWA Constellation to Los Angeles and succeeded in getting introductions to United Artistes and Horizon Pictures. It was he who pioneered the new trend of international film companies deciding to use Ceylon as a location to shoot their films. This was a massive boost for tourism here and one of the largest U.S. travel companies included Ceylon in their "Around the World" itineraries.

Some of the films shot on location in Sri Lanka were "Outcast of the island", "Purple Plains," "Elephant Bill," "Never So Few,’’ ``Planter’s Wife," "Destination Paradise" and of course "The Bridge Over River Kwai" directed by David Lean starring Alec Guiness and William Holden. This box office hit was totally filmed here.

A foreign film maker of the time described Ceylon as a paradise location for shooting international films.

In the 1950’s Ceylon Tours handled 90% of Thomas Cook’s business here, a big achievement at the time.

A confident Ediriweera didn’t stop at that. In 1955 he incorporated Ceylon Hotels Ltd and became the Managing Director of the Grand Oriental Hotel which was at the time owned by a foreigner. In 1956 he went on to buy the Mount Lavinia Hotel which served as a location for top films such as "Bridge Over River Kwai" and "Three Yellow Cats".

He had many firsts to his credit and was part of the first outbound trip to Burma.

Ceylon Tours was not short of people with ideas and pioneered the concept of using the Bell Jet Ranger helicopters supplied by the US to help fight the 1971 insurrection to be used for tourism too. They offered same day tours with airlifts from Queen Elizabeth Quay when passenger ships arrived.

Then SLAF Commander Air Vice-Marshall Paddy Mendis liked the idea and sought government approval to use the choppers as air taxis when possible. When the `President Wilson’ cruise liner brought a shipload of wealthy Americans here, all seven SLAF aircraft were used to show them the sights.

Paddy Mendis introduced Ediriweera’s son to the Maldives and the latter, seeing archipelago, flew to Europe and organized under water specialized tours for that market to which the visitor numbers started swelling.

Ediriweera also leased a tourist hotel in Anuradhapura called Grand Hotel and operated the San Michelle resort in Bolgoda which Ceylon Tours leased from its owners. He was also for a time the Chairman of the "Times of Ceylon," a newspaper he worked for in his early days.

Today his daughter, Mrs D.B. Suranimala, and sons Suren and Chandra Ediriweera have taken Ceylon Tours to greater heights and Nushani Ediriweera, his grand daughter, has also joined the company bringing a third generation into the business.

``We were in business even before the Ceylon Tourist Board was formed,’’ recalled Suren Ediriweera, now the company’s Managing Director. "During my father’s time there was no fierce competition and there were only a handful of players in a market where everyone had a fair share."

``Today it’s a different game with very large players competing for market share with profit margins trimmed to the bone. But we are happy to have been a part of the industry since its teething years and have seen new trends evolve,’’ he said.

``We (Ediriweera’s children) are happy that during the last 30 years we have been a part of the company and never looked back. Even with all the hardship and adversities we faced during the worst periods, we moved forward and we will continue to move forward.’’

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...