Cashing in on the craze for living in or staying at palaces and forts, new hotel operators in India are drawing on inspiration from old stately homes of yore to recreate them in all their modern splendor. However, costs for this type of craftsmanship have risen.
REPORT FROM INDIA—Hoteliers with heritage properties in India are cashing in on many travelers’ dreams of living like a maharaja by restoring centuries’ old palaces and forts, known as “havelis,” according to sources.
Drawing inspiration from the past, hoteliers are building what they are calling “modern palace-fort hotels,” which incorporate modern amenities and age-old grandeur of architectural influence, ambience and interiors.
What spurs hoteliers to build new palaces rather than to restore old one?
Anuj Puri, chairman of Anarock Property Consultants, said that while many havelis have been converted into luxury hotels, a major challenge of obtaining the ability to do so is to establish that the title of a property is clear of disputes and multiple claimants.
“It is an uphill task to check the authenticity of the legal documents as many of these are centuries’ old properties,” Puri said.
Faziruddin Nirban, director and owner of Saira Estates Pvt. Ltd., said location is critical for palace hotels as it is for any other type.
“Several heritage properties are not situated in ideal locations, making it difficult to be accessed by both business and tourists. So land in the right location, with a particular shape and size, (it) made sense to build a modern palace,” Nirban said.
Nirban said one of those properties, Sairafort Sarovar Portico in Shilp Gram, Jaisalmer, covers approximately 85,000 square feet of land, “out of which 40% of the area is constructed and the remaining 60% is open land with greenery and landscaping.”
“Many brokerages would agree to try and sell such a property if the title is clear and there is real value in the plot it stands on. But it’s obviously not a sustainable business model since such properties are few and far between, and often extremely complicated to sell,” Puri said.
“Brokerages make their profits on numbers. Such properties are often sold by the owner-families along with their lawyers, and sometimes by banks if it’s part of an asset liquidation/debt retrieval process,” he added.
Sources said building new palaces comes with their own challenges, but far fewer legal ones.
Luxury properties such as the Oberoi group’s Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra; Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur; Udaivilas in Udaipur; and the recently constructed ITC Hotels’ ITC Grand Bharat near Gurgaon all have been inspired by the opulent palaces of yore.
Sources said that what is surprising is that there are several smaller hotels that have been built on the same lines such as the Hotel Deoki Niwas Palace in Jaisalmer.
Abdul Hameed, its GM, said “there is a craze to live in palaces, forts and havelis when one comes to Rajasthan. That is its strong point. So when a hotel (is) to be built, it (is) decided to build it like a palace. It is a newly constructed palace and not an old one.”
Nirban said it was his mother who urged him to build a new palace hotel.
“The architecture is a mix of Rajput and Mughal. However, a hotel project, despite its architecture moorings and location, has to be viable,” he said.
Rajiv Kapoor, GM of the Fairmont Jaipur, part of Accor, said while the construction methods of the past have been largely adhered to, this new breed of hotel has to incorporate modern engineering equipment for wiring and plumbing, among other requirements.
The continued existence of traditional, expert craftsmen makes it a joy to build such spaces, sources added.
Hameed said his Jaisalmer property, built using a yellow sandstone typical of the region, included “jharokhas,” a style of overhanging enclosed balcony, and ceilings painted with Mandawa-style frescoes.
“Jaipur’s artisans and craftsmen also played a key role in creating this palace that reflects the Mughal era’s aesthetic, a distinctive style reflecting Persian, Ottoman and Islamic influences, a love of symmetry in design,” Kapoor said, referring to his Fairmont property.
“Local craftsmen infuse the hotel with a contemporary interpretation of Mughal aesthetic. Detailed, patterned plaster work and delicate ceiling adornments in shades of gold, blue and red as well as traditional artwork are featured,” he added.
Sources pointed out costs have risen for such handcrafted work.
“(Our) project began in 2011. We then had to standardize the property to meet Sarovar Portico’s requirement and finally began operations in 2018. We had cost and time overruns as we wanted to authenticate the old palace feel in modern settings to perfection,” the Hotel Deoki Niwas’ Hameed said.
“Ours is a budget hotel with 32 rooms. Today, to build a similar hotel, will cost in the range of 7 to 8 Indian crore ($950,000 to $1.1 million), including land cost. The stonework is expensive,” Hameed added.
Sources added the marketing of such properties fits in very well with that of hotel management chains and does not require special or niche efforts.
“Although it is said heritage properties are a niche area to be marketed specially, we are part of an international chain,” Nirban said, who added he did also have an internal marketing team, and his next “haveli” project is to be in Bikaner, Rajasthan.