The Indian city has puts its troubles behind it and is firmly focused on the future, says Sara Turner.
Few will have forgotten the terrible scenes in Mumbai in November 2008, when terrorists attacked the city, and images of smoke billowing from the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel filled TV screens across the globe. The 50 hours of trauma, concentrated in the popular tourist areas of south Mumbai, left 173 people dead and more than 308 injured. It also caused serious damage to high-profile buildings – as well as the Taj, the Oberoi Mumbai and Leopold Café on Colaba Causeway were hit, both popular with tourists and locals alike.
Mumbaikars now refer to the event as 26/11 – their own 9/11. As India’s commercial and financial capital, the city was already suffering from the effects of the global economic crisis, and in the immediate aftermath both business and leisure travellers fled, leaving Mumbai reeling. But a year and a half on, the city is firmly on the up again. By this month, both the Taj and the Oberoi will have reopened. This is “surely a symbol of regeneration”, says the Taj’s general manager, Karambir Singh Kang, who lost his wife and two children in the attacks. “Both of these iconic hotels were targeted, but now we are opening at the same time and attracting back the guests that used to stay with us,” he says.
While the Taj was able to reopen sections of the hotel within days, large parts, including the historic Palace wing, needed months of work. The Oberoi closed completely, with the Oberoi group’s Trident Nariman Point, next door, remaining open. Both companies took the opportunity to upgrade the properties while restoring the damaged areas.
“We totally revamped the Palace wing,” Kang says. “It’s a very historic building [having opened in 1903], and every room has its own unique character, so you cannot take a cookie-cutter approach. We’ve worked with five international designers to retain the real soul of the place.” The Taj also created a memorial to the 31 people who died there.
The Oberoi was due to reopen officially on April 24 and has been completely transformed, with contemporary interiors and upgraded facilities. New restaurants include Ziya, an Indian eatery overseen by Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia, an all-day diner, a bar and a redesigned lounge. Steven Kalczynski, the hotel’s general manager, says: “A key aspect of the refurbishment was to shift to a more modern design aesthetic. In this way, I believe the hotel will appeal to a younger breed of CEOs and top executives, as well as its existing clientele. Technology and other facilities have been improved, in keeping with the needs of today’s busy travellers.”
Kalczynski urges visitors to return to Mumbai and experience what it has to offer. “Being an American, I’m still new to the city and am slowly beginning to understand its colourful, wonderful chaos,” he says. “Visitors should not be deterred by recent events – key metropolises such as London, New York and Madrid have come under siege before and bounced back. Mumbai, too, is a resilient city. It’s an important business hub and offers so much in the way of culture, food and customs.”
Nevertheless, the attack has left lasting reminders, not least in the level of security. “What 9/11 did to airline travel, this has done to hotels,” Kang says. “Heightened security is a reality we all have to live with. I think we have to find the right balance – security should be visible, yet also invisible.” Bag checks, car screening and 24-hour security surveillance are now the norm.
Still, India remains an appealing business prospect for the major hotel chains. Accor is set to open 45 properties here by 2012, while Starwood plans to increase the number of hotels it has in the country by 60 per cent by 2013, including several Aloft properties. Miguel Ko, chairman and president of Starwood’s Asia-Pacific division, says: “India is one of the most promising markets in Asia-Pacific, with GDP estimates topping 7 per cent for the next two years and a consumer market expected to rank as the world’s fifth largest by 2025. This relatively underdeveloped hotel market is fertile ground for our brands.”
Starwood’s Westin Mumbai Garden City hotel opened in January in Goregaon East, on the Western Express Highway near Film City, home of Bollywood. Housed in a 32-storey tower, the hotel has 269 rooms and suites, a gym, spa, pool, 900 sqm of meeting and function space, three restaurants and a bar. Elsewhere in Mumbai, regeneration is taking place. In the north of the city, next to Dharavi – one of Asia’s largest slums, made famous by the hit film Slumdog Millionaire – is the rapidly growing business district that is Bandra Kurla Complex. Often shortened to BKC, the complex is home to many financial, pharmaceutical and IT companies. It will also soon gain the new US embassy and India’s first Sofitel.
Currently, the only hotel here is the 436-room Trident Bandra Kurla, which opened in December. General manager Visheshwar Raj Singh says: “The area was identified by the government as a new business hub for Mumbai many years ago, and our property provides a sanctuary in the heart of this new financial and commercial district.”
Meanwhile, the striking Bandra-Worli Sea Link Bridge – four lanes of which opened last summer, with the final four having opened in March – is fast usurping the iconic Gateway of India as the symbol of Mumbai for many people. It takes only seven minutes to cross the 4km structure, reducing the travelling time from Bandra to Worli by an hour and hugely improving accessibility to south Mumbai. The next stage of the project, due to start before the end of the year, will see a similar construction linking Worli south to Haji Ali, and there are plans to build bridges right down to Nariman Point.
Anil Malik, general manager of the ITC Maratha, a Starwood Luxury Collection hotel near the international airport, says: “The government is putting infrastructure in place [to improve transport links], including air conditioned buses and monorails to cross the city. It’s not just north to south – east to west also has to be connected.”
With the city bursting at the seams, such improvements will make it easier for Mumbai to grow. “It takes more than two hours to reach the [city centre] from the outskirts, and that’s when the traffic isn’t bad,” Malik says. “In the next four or five years you will be able to do that journey in under 45 minutes. The city will expand phenomenally, no doubt about that.”
This will give Mumbai an even more cosmopolitan flavour. “It’s a melting pot, and in many ways is similar to New York in terms of the energy it has,” the Taj’s Kang says. “Now the government has woken up and is spending a lot of money on infrastructure, I see no reason why it shouldn’t be one of the greatest cities in the world.”
And while Slumdog Millionaire may have got a mixed reception in India, being accused of glamorising poverty, the rags-to-riches story certainly taps in to the fundamental Mumbai legend. Malik says: “People come here from all over the country [to find their fortune] – the auto-rickshaw driver in the suburbs, the taxi driver in Colaba, the stewards in the restaurants. And they all work together. They may have political parties speaking a different language but in reality, in the workforce, everyone tolerates each other. “That’s how life goes in Mumbai. For anybody who wants to get on professionally, to seek larger opportunities or to start a business, it is the place to be.”
WHEN IN MUMBAi…
- Power lunches and doing business over dinner are very popular in Mumbai but be aware that evening meals often start late, at about 9pm or 10pm.
- Master the namaste greeting – bring the palms of your hands together at chest level, with a slight bow of the head. It shows you are familiar with Indian customs.
- Give and receive business cards with your right hand, and put them away respectfully. If you’re doing a lot of business in India, translate your details into Hindi on the back. Most people speak English, but it shows respect.
- Formal clothing is always preferred. Dress smartly, preferably in a suit and a tie. Women should wear conservative dresses, below the knee, or trouser suits.
Where to dine
- Shanghai Club at ITC Grand Central in Parel (starwoodhotels.com) serves delicious Chinese food.
- To experience tasty South Indian cuisine, head to Dakshin, or for delectable North Indian try Dum Pukht, both at the ITC Maratha (itcwelcomgroup.in).
- One of the first sushi restaurants to open in India, Wasabi by Morimoto at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower (tajhotels.com) has great views over the Gateway of India.
- For genuine street food head to Chowpatty Beach for stalls selling chaat – small plates of savoury snacks, bhelpuri (puffed rice with spices), or kulfi, Indian ice cream.
- The Four Seasons Mumbai’s 34th-floor rooftop bar Aer (fourseasons.com) is the perfect place to get away from Mumbai’s boisterous street life.
- Trident Nariman Point’s all day restaurant Frangipani (tridenthotels.com) serves up excellent stone-baked pizza as well as more traditional Indian fare.
What to see
- Take an evening walk along Marine Drive (known locally as the Queen’s Necklace) to catch courting couples watching the sunset and stretch your legs without having to dodge traffic.
- Visit the Jehangir Art Gallery at Kala Ghoda in the south of the city to see contemporary exhibitions of sculpture, photography and paintings. Open daily 11am-7pm; free entry.
- Formerly known as the Prince of Wales Museum, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya in Colaba is a treasure trove of relics, including exquisite examples of Mughal miniature painting and stuffed tigers. Open 10.15am-5.45pm Tues-Sun; closed Mon. Entry Rs 5 (10p).
- Take a trip to the Hanging Gardens of Malabar Hill for a great view of Marine Drive and the shanty towns jostling for space amid new high-rise blocks.