A brief history of hotels in times of crisis

From famous ‘war hotels’ in Beirut and Baghdad, Saigon and Sarajevo to those now being transformed into field hospitals.

Holiday Inn beirut
The bullet ridden former Holiday Inn in Beirut, Lebanon [Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images]

Hotels are places normally associated with pleasure, relaxation and luxury – weddings, parties, holidays – or more mundane activities like business trips and conferences. They are omnipresent and ordinary, but when circumstances are extraordinary, as they are in the middle of the current COVID-19 crisis, hotels have to adapt quickly to new and unexpected realities. 

As the current crisis gradually closes down the tourist industry in many parts of the world, empty hotels are being redeployed as accommodation for key medical staff, as quarantine centres or as field hospitals. No longer places for leisure, business, enjoyment and indulgence, they have become instead vital components in the infrastructure of crisis management.

It is, of course, well documented that in crises, such as wars, hotels can play an important role.

They can be militarised (as strategic assets), as some of Beirut’s grandest – the St Georges, the Phoenicia, the Hilton and the Holiday Inn – were during the “Battle of the Hotels” in Beirut in 1975.

Continental Saigon
During the First Indochina war, the Hotel Continental in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) was a popular meeting point for journalists and politicians. Renamed the Continental Palace during the Vietnam war, it housed the Newsweek and Time bureaux. It features in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American [Reuters]

They can also be utilised as bases for the media. Hotels such as the Rex Hotel, the Continental Palace and the Caravelle in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), the Commodore in Beirut, the Palestine and Al Rasheed hotels in Baghdad, and the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo – where waiting staff continued to serve dinner in their neat jackets and bow-ties, despite the shells falling nearby – are among those that have gained near-legendary status as “war hotels”.

Hotels can also be redeployed as prisons or holding facilities, the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton being the most high-profile “five-star prison”, where Saudi elites accused of corruption were held in November 2017.

Conversely, they also serve as temporary places of sanctuary for refugees and internally displaced peoples fleeing military attack or paramilitary violence. Hotels can, after all, still provide a limited form of hospitality during such times. Most are well-built structures that possess an internal “micro-structure” that includes generators, water tanks, refrigeration, stores of dried food, and, crucially, cellars or basement conference rooms where large numbers can be accommodated. 

holiday inn sarajevo
Combo photographs show Sarajevo’s Holiday Inn hotel and Unis towers on the infamous street nicknamed “Sniper’s Alley” damaged by Bosnian Serb shelling in 1992, top, and restored in a photograph made on November 17, 2005 [AP Photo/Hidajet Delic]

They also play an equally important role as nodes in the broader infrastructure required to shelter and support people fleeing persecution and war. The ongoing conflicts in Libya and Syria, for example, saw an exodus of refugees attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Consequently, hotels on the Greek coast and Greek islands (such as the Captain Elias Hotel in Kos), as well as numerous hotels in the Balkans, were transformed into large centres for refugees run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and funded by the European Commission as part of a wider European Union relocation scheme. 

The City Plaza in Athens, constructed in advance of the Olympics in 2004, was driven into bankruptcy after the 2008 global financial crisis. It lay empty for years before locals took it over and established “solidarity networks”, with the aim of building new communities of co-existence between refugees and locals. Likewise, the Magdas Hotel in Vienna, formerly a retirement home, became a social enterprise offering work opportunities to refugees.

This model was adopted across Europe, the United States and Canada in advance of refugees being more permanently resettled. Larger hotel chains thereafter negotiated contracts with national governments to help them deal with the influx of refugees. The German government, for example, negotiated a deal with Grand City Hotels that allowed for 22 hotels in Berlin to be used to provide shelter for refugees. This not only ensured that the refugees could be safely housed but, for the hotel chains, it ensured that occupancy rates above the industry average were guaranteed. 

Palestine hotel Baghdad
A Blackhawk helicopter flies near the Sheraton and Palestine hotels November 24, 2003 in Baghdad, Iraq. On April 8, 2003, two journalists were killed when an American tank fired a shell at the Palestine hotel, where many journalists were staying at the time [Chris Hondros/Getty Images]

During the COVID-19 crisis, hotels have again played a crucial role. With occupancy dramatically decreasing, hotel owners and management have either been forced to close or to find ways of “re-purposing” their facilities and the hospitality industry has responded in a number of ways – as quarantine centres, field hospitals or as accommodation for medical staff and other key workers. Of course, there is nothing particularly novel about this. Hotels were frequently commandeered and used as field hospitals during both the first and second world wars and numerous 20th-century conflicts, but we have witnessed nothing in terms of the scale of such a redeployment since.

Nevertheless, hotels are well-equipped for such reconfiguration. A hotel used a quarantine centre is essentially one in which each room becomes a self-contained isolation unit, with en suite facilities. Food can be delivered to the doors of those quarantined, and human contact can be kept to a minimum. And with many foreign nationals still unable to travel home, hotels have been offering, for those that have the ability to pay, 14-day “self-isolation” packages in which interaction between staff and guests is kept to an absolute minimum. For others, the hotel has been used as a space for enforced quarantine. Australians returning from trips abroad are being placed into quarantine in hotels, including Sydney’s five-star Hilton Hotel.

Al Rasheed Hotel
A man looks out of his hotel room after rockets were fired at the Al Rasheed Hotel in Bahdad on October 26, 2003. The hotel housed senior US military and civilian officials at the time. It had gained fame during the first Gulf War when CNN aired its newscasts from the hotel. After that war, a tile mosaic depicting US President George H.W. Bush was installed on the floor of the lobby so that visitors would have to walk over his face. It was smashed by American soldiers following the US invasion in 2003 and the hotel was converted into a base for the US military [Paula Bronstein/Getty Images]

In Spain, as the COVID-19 crisis escalated, guests at the H10 Costa Adeje Palace Hotel in Tenerife, Spain, were quarantined inside the building, while a temporary field hospital was hastily created in the hotel’s grounds. This was just the first example of a hotel being used as part of the battle against the virus – numerous hotels in Madrid, such as the Las Provincias and the Grand Hotel Colon, have subsequently been used as field hospitals as COVID-19 spread throughout the country.

The Grand Hotel in Brighton
Five people were killed when an IRA bomb exploded inside the Grand Hotel in Brighton on October 12, 1984. Margaret Thatcher’s ruling Conservative Party was holding its annual conference in the hotel at the time [John Minihan/Express/Getty Images]

In the United Kingdom, Brighton’s Grand Hotel, once the site of a bomb attack on a Conservative Party conference by the Irish Republican Army, closed its doors to ordinary guests and is now providing rooms, free of charge, to staff from the country’s National Health Service (NHS). A number of hotels in Manchester, London, Newcastle and Oxford have done likewise. Similarly, the Best Western Hotel Group have made rooms available for NHS workers and ‘lower-risk patients’. Britannia Hotels also offered accommodation for more than 600 patients, to free-up beds for those requiring critical care in hospitals. 

In New York, the epicentre of the outbreak in the US, the St Regis Hotel, the Plaza Hotel and Yotel have become temporary field hospitals for non-critical patients, while the Four Seasons in Manhattan has provided healthcare workers with free rooms. Hotels in Chicago and Baltimore are following suit.

Hotels have also been used in the US and UK to protect the homeless from COVID-19. In mid-March, the UK government and the London Mayor’s office negotiated a deal with the Intercontinental Hotels Group (IHG), who own the Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express brands, that allows for hundreds of their rooms in London to be used by rough sleepers to self-isolate for a three-month period. Similarly, the French government have made hotel rooms available for those potentially vulnerable to becoming victims of domestic violence, while hotels in Paris are being used to shelter the homeless.

Plaza Hotel NYC
The Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, New York, has been temporarily converted into a field hospital for non-critical patients [Drew Angerer/Getty Images/AFP]

The hotel industry is adapting to an unsettling, albeit temporary, new reality. Largely associated with wealth and glamour and tangible, sometimes distasteful, symbols of the excesses of capitalism, they are now becoming anything but.

They will again become places synonymous with leisure, merely part of the everyday infrastructure of tourism and business. But in the middle of the current crisis, they have adapted to become vital components in the fight against COVID-19, quarantining people who might otherwise transmit the disease, keeping thousands of vulnerable people in relative safety and easing pressure on increasingly embattled health services.

In the best and the worst of times, the hotel, and the hospitality it provides, remains an important part of the fabric of our lives – perhaps more than we appreciate.

Source: Al Jazeera