Mumbai Hotel, a Killing Zone, Is Grand Again
By VIKAS BAJAJ
Published: April 20, 2010
MUMBAI, India — On Wednesday, the Oberoi Hotel, one of two five-star hotel complexes attacked by 10 Pakistan-based gunmen in November 2008, will welcome its first guests after a comprehensive $45 million reconstruction.
Times Topic: Terrorism in India
Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press
The lobby, which had been ravaged by gunshots and grenade blasts during the three-day siege, has been rebuilt with milky-white marble from the Greek island of Thassos. The already luxurious guestroom baths have been upgraded to include flat-screen televisions. Dozens of security guards watch the premises. And the Tiffin restaurant, where many guests and employees were killed in the terrorist attack, is now called Fenix.
The rebirth of the Oberoi — along with the expected return to full service of the other hotel attacked, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower — is an important milestone for Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. The brazen strike, in which 163 people died, dealt India and Mumbai a significant psychic and economic blow, and recovery has come slowly.
As in the rest of the world, India’s economy slowed sharply at the end of 2008 because of the global financial crisis. But the attacks compounded the damage here by shaking the confidence of investors, corporate executives and consumers.
In the last nine months, however, government stimulus and strong domestic consumer demand have helped revive the economy. India is still some way from the heady 9 percent growth rate of 2007, but the government is projecting 8 percent growth for the 2010-11 fiscal year, up from 7.2 percent last year.
Tourism and travel are also rebounding. In the first quarter, India had 1.56 million foreign tourists, up 13 percent from the first three months of 2009 and just shy of the 1.6 million that showed up in the same period in 2008, according to the Tourism Ministry.
Domestic and foreign hotel companies are adding rooms at a breakneck pace. For instance, Hyatt Hotels, the chain based in Chicago, which currently has five hotels in India, plans to open 20 more properties in the country in the next four to five years.
The Oberoi, which formally reopens on Saturday, and the Taj are the last of the sites affected by the 2008 attacks to return to something resembling normal operations. The Taj, part of which is usable now, is expected to open guest rooms in its century-old palace wing soon, although the hotel has not provided an exact date.
Crushing as the attacks were for the rest of India, they were devastating for the two hotels — widely considered among the finest in the city — and the companies that own them.
The Mumbai Oberoi, for instance, accounted for about one-fifth of the revenue of the chain before the attacks. The earnings of East India Hotels, the publicly listed company that operates the hotels, fell nearly 70 percent in the nine months ended in December, compared with the same period a year earlier.
“We were affected severely,” said P. R. S. Oberoi, chairman of the parent company, the Oberoi Group, and the son of its founder. “Lehman Brothers was in September, and we had started feeling some of the effect maybe a little before that. Then the attacks happened and Bombay emptied out.”
In an interview last week at the hotel, Mr. Oberoi said occupancy rates at the Trident, the company’s business hotel next door, which did not suffer extensive damage, were back to levels that prevailed before the attack. But he noted that the supply of hotel rooms in Mumbai’s prime business district had shrunk significantly because the Oberoi and the palace wing of the Taj had been closed.
Mr. Oberoi, who himself narrowly missed being caught up in the attack on the hotel because he had left to attend an event elsewhere, said he had feared the hotel would be unsalvageable. But after four months of planning and 11 months of reconstruction, the innards of the hotel, which was built in 1986, have been transformed.
A big part of the focus has been to improve security. The hotel now has 150 security cameras, up from just 15 at the time of the attacks. It has 50 security personnel, five times the number it had in 2008. Visitors who drive up are greeted by a big steel gate where their cars are searched. The large windows in the lobby that overlook south Mumbai’s picturesque, crescent-shaped bay are now made from reinforced, shatterproof glass.
Still, Mr. Oberoi said that securing the hotel against every possible attack would be impossible. “What about suicide bombers? How do you stop them?” he said. “We check everybody, including me.”
At an age where many corporate executives spend much of their time on their golf game, Mr. Oberoi, 81, seems to have immersed himself in the details of rebuilding his flagship hotel. His staff said that he personally inspected hundreds of marble tiles to make sure no blemished pieces made it onto the floor, rejecting about 70 percent of the tiles the company received. Last week, during a tour with two visitors, he kept pointing out minor defects to his staff.
Many of the changes at the Oberoi are meant to make the hotel even more opulent and luxurious than it already was. Two big coffee tables in the lobby are topped with marble inlaid with precious stones. Those tables, and 600 others placed in guest rooms, were made by workers who, Oberoi executives said, are descendants of craftsmen who worked on the Taj Mahal.
Officials have made bathrooms bigger, added shower stalls and installed the TVs in front of free-standing bathtubs. Clear glass walls separate bathrooms from living rooms; a screen can be drawn for privacy. Rooms have “butler” buttons, which will summon a hotel employee within three minutes.
The Oberoi now has 81 suites, up from 26, because demand for suites has held up better than standard rooms, officials said. In total, the number of rooms has declined to 287, from 330. The price for a night’s stay ranges from 25,000 rupees ($560) for the smallest room to 300,000 rupees ($6,714) for the top suites.
The Taj has been making similar changes, increasing the number of suites. In an interview late last year, executives said one of the challenges of rebuilding their hotel was that no two rooms in the palace wing had the same layout. So, officials decided to redo every room using five templates.
“We are not going to just repair what is damaged and reopen the hotel,” said Ajoy K. Misra, a senior vice president for the Indian Hotels Company, which owns the Taj. “We are going to redesign the hotel.”