Financila Times
By Victoria Burnett
February 7 200 3 4:00

Kabul's hotels prepare for visitors' return

To step through the door of Room 132 of the Kabul Hotel is to fall 20ft to a pile of rubble below.

The white-painted doorway is all that remains of the room that, along with a big chunk of the hotel, was bombed during Afghanistan's fierce civil war.

Over the coming months, Room 132 will be rebuilt as part of a $26m reconstruction project aimed at turning the 110-room hotel into a five-star attraction with shops, a health club and a Mogul-style garden.

In a quirk of history, it is being designed by Ramesh Khosla, the architect who designed the former World Trade Center Concourse - the warren of shopping arcades and passageways at the foot of the twin towers.

"To now to be working on this building in Kabul . . . that's quite something," said Mr Khosla, senior partner of Arcop, a Montreal architecture firm.

With fragile peace persevering a year after a US-led bombing campaign ousted the Taliban regime, investors are taking a bet on an enduring stability to attract five-star travellers - businessmen, diplomats and tourists - to Kabul.

Ali Mawji, of the Aga Khan Development Network, a group of private development agencies whose economic development arm, Akfed, bought the lease for the hotel, said "it would be a signal" that a serious private investor was willing to make a significant investment in Kabul.

The project marks one of the country's few substantial private-sector ventures since the fall of the Taliban. The telecoms sector has so far attracted the only sizeable investments, with GSM operator Afghan Wireless Communication Company investing more than $60m since April 2001. Akfed signed a contract last month with the government for the country's second GSM licence.

Amir Mohammed Fasilyar, the Kabul Hotel's former beverage manager, remembered the bustling hotel where he took his first job 30 years ago. "Once, it was very beautiful," he said. "They had a bar, concerts, dancing, weddings. It was full - full of tourists!"

The hotel has also borne testimony to much of Kabul's violent history. In 1979, US ambassador Adolph Dubs was shot and died there.

In 1996, the hotel stored art and artefacts from the remnants of the Kabul Museum's collection which was decimated by looting during four years of factional fighting.

The Kabul Hotel is not the only one having a facelift. In October, the Dubai-based Al Yuqoub group bought a 15-year lease for the Intercontinental Hotel, pledging $8m over 15 months to bring it up to five-star standards.

The Intercontinental, on a hillside overlooking the city, is Kabul's only big hotel. The freezing, dimly lit lobby is drab, but the 200 rooms are 70-75 per cent occupied by guests paying about $70 a night. John Anjum, the cheerful general manager, has begun improvements and plans to overhaul every room, add two restaurants and renovate the bar and swimming pool.

Plans are also afoot for a 200-room hotel opposite the US embassy.

Akfed hopes to open its refurbished, renamed Kabul Serena with 110 rooms this year. The challenges of running a hotel in a city with no banks, no reliable water or electricity supply and poor telecommunications service are immense, said Mr Anjum.

"Everything is imported - bedsheets, napkins, Coke, 7-Up - all of it," he said. But he is confident there will be enough punters to keep both hotels busy if peace holds.

"This city used to be a fun city. So many clubs! But these things will come back."