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War-torn Kabul’s first 5-star hotel

Miranda Kennedy Aug 23, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: There’s violence enough to go around in the Middle East. So it’s been easy to lose sight of Afghanistan. But a thousand people have been killed there in the past three months. NATO and US troops are fighting the Taliban in the southern part of the country. And even in the capital of Kabul security’s getting worse. But between the riots and the car bombs, some determined investors have persevered. Miranda Kennedy reports they’ve turned a dingy government building into the city’s first luxury hotel.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: Nestled among bombed-out buildings, the Serena Hotel touts itself as the symbol of the new Kabul. Its design is sleek, and its service is close to world class. There’s sushi but no swimming pool. With a price tag of almost $37 million, it’s one of the biggest foreign investments into Afghanistan yet. But it hasn’t been easy for hotel management.

CHRIS NEWBERY: In many ways it’s probably what I expected, just a lot more of what I expected.

Chris Newbery, the Serena’s general manager, has run hotels in some difficult parts of Asia and Africa during his 40-year career. But he says the complications in Kabul are unique.

NEWBERY: It has been very challenging, I have to admit that. Its probably been my most challenging assignment. Over the years you get to understand what’s required to keep a hotel safe and secure.

[Sound: “So please remember, when the alarms go off, you wait for instruction, you don’t immediately evacuate.” . . . ]

Today, he’s going to some lengths to teach his Afghan employees how to respond in an emergency. This morning, they held an evacuation drill.

KENNEDY: How did you think it went?

NEWBERRY: Not as well as it should have gone (laughs). But what we need to do is do it on a more frequent basis so they get used to it and they understand the situation.

So Newbery gathers his 350-some staff in the courtyard to talk about what went wrong. Turns out, many of them didnt hear the alarm, and those who did, dashed out of the hotel without making sure the guests were safe.

NEWBERRY: When we do a drill, there has to be somebody who goes up on the floors and guides people to the nearest emergency exit. Now did anybody do that? Well that’s supposed to happen.

The need for a good emergency plan became really obvious a couple months ago, when rioting mobs smashed in several windows of the hotel. After that, Newberry decided to raise the hotel’s exterior wall from 10 to 19 feet high, and upped all the security arrangements a notch. But the occupancy rate at the Kabul Serena was only 30 percent in the first six months, and its dipped even lower since the riots.

JOHN MCDONALD: There aren’t, obviously, as many people here as they would like, but they’re betting on the future.

John McDonald has been living in the Serena for several months, while he works as a financial advisor to the Afghan government. He says the hotel’s main investors, the Aga Khan Development Network, shouldn’t be looking to make a profit just yet.

MCDONALD: If they were thinking they were going to make their money back in a year, clearly that’s not going to happen. But I don’t think anybody thought that. I think theyre planning for the 10-20 year time horizon.

But for now, the Serena says it has to charge high rates. A single room runs at $250 a night, which is pretty hefty for one of the world’s poorest countries — in a conflict zone at that. But McDonald says expats are willing to pay.MCDONALD: It makes living in Kabul a hell of a lot more doable. After being in the Serena for a week or two you tend to almost forget that you’re in Kabul. That’s a good thing.A lot of Kabul’s U.N. workers and security contractors agree that the Serena is a godsend — even though it doesn’t serve alcohol, out of respect for Islam. Many foreigners spend the day here on Fridays, the weekly day off in Afghanistan, when the Serena has a special brunch buffet that includes waffles and steak. Restaurant manager Hussein Amit says they sometimes get 150 people a day coming in to splurge on the $30 meal.

HUSSEIN AMIT: This is becoming the hub of the city. I mean, this is the right place.

But the hotel still doesn’t have a gym or a pool. So if Afghanistan does ever develop into a tourist hotspot, visitors may welcome some competition from chains like the Hyatt Hotel, which has plans to set up shop here — depending how the Serena does.

In Kabul, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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