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June 04, 2017

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The year was 2002, the city was Karachi, and militancy had just reared its head in the aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan. On the morning of May 8, around 8am, a car driver detonated himself next to a bus meant to transport French engineers from the Sheraton Hotel to a naval facility. The explosion at the five-star hotel killed 11 Frenchmen and two Pakistanis, and left 40 others injured. The suspects were later linked to al-Qaeda by Pakistani officials.

In the 15 years since, the hotel industry in Karachi struggled to survive. With the city neither a tourist destination nor a vacation spot, the suicide attack changed international perceptions: Karachi was no longer a safe destination for investment or other business. Fewer businessmen from abroad visited the city and international airlines began scaling down their Karachi operations.

With no visitors to speak of, hotels slowly began to wear deserted looks by 2005 and the industry began imploding. And the industry was in dire straits — that is until recently when the Chinese started arriving in great numbers. Is the bad patch over for hotel businesses?

“I can’t share the exact numbers with you, they are confidential,” says Mövenpick’s Marketing and Communication Manager Amara Ashraf, “but what I can confirm for you is that a significant share of our yearly business comes from Chinese guests. It is safe to say that the hotel industry’s revival in Karachi is tied to a greater Chinese presence in the city.”

Mövenpick was infact once the Sheraton Hotel but Sheraton choose to exit Karachi on December 31, 2013 due to the financial losses they were sustaining. In came Mövenpick, owned by the Kuwait Investment Authority, who saw Karachi as a lucrative opportunity. They pledged to retain over 600 staff operating the 407 rooms of the hotel as well as the various in-house restaurants and coffee shop. The gamble seems to have paid off.

“There is always a balance that we maintain between local and international clientele, their respective preferences, as well as their needs and requirements,” says Ashraf. “But of course international business, which is consistent, carries great monetary significance.”

More Chinese visitors to Karachi are sparking a revival of the hotel industry

The Chinese presence in Karachi predates the signing of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Chinese engineers and executives have been working with the Sindh government on various projects, including the Thar Coal Project, throughout the last decade. But the inking of the CPEC agreement has changed the nature of cooperation: from a distanced, consultative role, their presence has become more proactive and hands-on. Today, more and more Chinese executives have started visiting Karachi as Chinese partnerships have expanded to other services such as electric power generation and garbage collection.

“They are simple people, not very demanding, but very detail-oriented,” says Avari Towers Karachi’s General Manager, Erik Huyer. “They [like other Asians] prefer bath tubs to showers, for example. They also like quick room and restaurant services and are very particular about time.”

Indeed, in the lobbies of almost all five-star hotels in Karachi, a Chinese national or two can always be spotted pacing the lobby with a laptop in tow. In one corner of the Marriott in Karachi, an officer finalises travel arrangements for Chinese clients to the airport. In another hotel, a senior security officer issues final instructions to the guards accompanying guests to the airport — some will be in the bus carrying the passengers and the others will be in two cars flanking the bus.

It is almost impossible to shake the feeling that the hotel industry in Karachi is gearing its services towards the needs of Chinese guests.

But Huyers rebuffs that perception. “The revival [of hotels] is connected with the overall economy and the improved security situation here, not just the Chinese,” he argues. “But it is important to note that not all Chinese visitors to Karachi become guests at five-star hotels. Only five percent or so do.”

The others, according to him, rent apartments or bungalows in elite localities if their job means they have to stay in Pakistan for long periods. Then there is a separate segment of visitors that rent guest houses — these are cheaper options in the middle to long term.

Ashraf agrees that apartments and guest houses pose a great challenge to established hotels, but explains how Mövenpick went about finding a solution to the problem.

“We realised that the Chinese were bringing in great business, throughout the year, and therefore not only were our rooms occupied but associated restaurants and services were also being utilised,” she narrates. “What we did then was to create different packages, offering different corporate rates and services. So if they were occupying our rooms for say six months, they’d be entitled to those rates.”

But did such a pricing policy impact local business?

“We had already constructed new business halls, meeting rooms and workspaces to cater to local demand. We have been offering uninterrupted electricity and high-speed internet. So they have incentive to do business with us,” she explains. “But if a local company were to occupy our rooms and therefore utilise our services for longer periods, they too would be entitled to subsidised corporate packages.”

In the lobby of Karachi’s Pearl Continental, a young Chinese man paces around waiting for a colleague to take him to an Iftar party — a unique experience in Karachi for this young tech executive. When asked if he had heard of Shan Masala and its biryani, he answered in the negative. As executives at Avari and Mövenpick explained, the Chinese are “a proud people with a deep relationship with their food. All they want is authentic Chinese cuisine.”

At both hotels, the signature Chinese restaurants are run by Chinese chefs: Chef Yu at Dynasty, Avari Towers and Chef Yang at the Lotus Court, Mövenpick.

“Chinese guests don’t have to speak English,” explains Huyers, “they can converse with the chef directly in Chinese. Sometimes we have groups of eight to ten people coming over. Chef Yu would ask them if they want any particular regional dishes on the menu and he specially prepares them for the guests. In this way, we have a community building around the restaurant where Chinese nationals as well as staff working at the Chinese Embassy congregate.”

Then there are other cultural peculiarities that Pakistanis hotels are now catering to: “The Chinese don’t like to shake your hand at the outset, they like to get to know you first,” explains Huyers. For this reason, the staff at Avari is routinely trained in cultural sensitivity.

Over at Mövenpick, Ashraf explains that the hotel hired a guest relations officer — a Chinese woman — to ensure that their guests from China have a flavour of home on foreign territory.

“They feel very proud of seeing one of their own do well in a foreign land,” she explains. “Since the guest relations officer is often their first point of contact, we decided to hire someone who could speak their language and make them comfortable at the outset. It was a very successful move.”

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @ASYusuf

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 4th, 2017