A brief history of hotels in times of crisis

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.
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. 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.

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