September Issue 2013

By | Life Style | Published 7 years ago

Where do visitors stay when they come to Karachi? The instinctive answer might be well known hotels such as Avari, Beach Luxury, Pearl Continental, Sheraton and Marriott. However, the city also has roughly 200 guesthouses that provide more options and avenues for visitors. Whereas many of the guesthouses have long been established in the city, many new ones have also sprung up in the last decade or so. There does not seem to be any one, particular trend behind the recent growth in the number of guesthouses, but it is still interesting to see in what ways they are different from hotels, the kind of services they offer and why might people choose to stay in them.

The choice of a guesthouse over a hotel depends on the kind of services, ambience and location one is looking for, in addition to room rents. A guesthouse in Karachi provides most of the services that are available in a hotel such as TV, internet, laundry, airport pick-and-drop, food services, mini bar, etc.

So what makes a guesthouse special? The management at Chalet, located in Clifton, Block 9, maintains that their guesthouse is like a “home away from home” and that top hotels in the city are unable to create such a feeling for clients. They argue that a hotel does not offer the same level of personalised customer care service, hotel employees remain detached from customers, while guesthouse employees are more helpful and welcoming. Grace Inn, located in Bath Island, reiterates the same point: “Clients appreciate the home atmosphere that we try to create here.”
So what exactly is an atmosphere akin to home? Asaish, a guesthouse in P.E.C.H.S and Grace Inn look like typical Karachi houses, whereas Chalet, with its modern design and furniture, resembles a house that one would expect in upscale Clifton and Defence. Almost all of the city’s guesthouses are housed in big bungalows so the bedrooms, kitchen and living spaces immediately give a feeling of comfort and familiarity. “We also let our guests use our kitchen and cook their own food,” says Asad Malik, the manager of Asaish Guesthouse. Other guesthouses have their own full-time cooks. Most guesthouses normally have between 10 and 20 rooms and, hence, can entertain only a limited number of guests. They do not have a constant traffic of people as hotels do; only those who are staying at a guesthouse come and go and use its services and common spaces. In this respect, exclusivity and privacy is also greater in a guesthouse than in a hotel.

While the home-like feeling seems to be a major selling point of guesthouses, prices also matter. Upscale and located in Clifton, Chalet offers single-occupancy rooms for Rs 3,500 per night and double-occupancy rooms for Rs 4,500 per night. But other guesthouses in the city offer cheaper rates for rooms. For example, Karachi Guesthouse in Gulshan offers all the standard services and their single-occupancy rooms can be rented for Rs 2,000 a night. Asaish Guesthouse, located at the prime spot of main Shara-e-Faisal, offers single-occupancy rooms for Rs 2,600 and their double-occupancy rooms are Rs 3,000 a night. They also offer corporate discounts for businesses. Asad Malik of Asaish Guesthouse says that “a lower rate for rooms is the main reason why people come to guesthouses like ours. Four-star or five-star hotels can charge up to Rs 10,000 for a night and those who do not want to pay that much money will come to us.” Mohammad Nazakat, Grace Inn’s manager, also reiterates the importance of low prices. So it is clear that guesthouses beat hotels in terms of price as well.

But just because guesthouses charge lower prices, does not mean that its clientele is less noteworthy. The main clients of these guesthouses are business groups, private companies and NGOs. While most of the guests are Pakistanis, there are some foreign visitors as well. “We only give rooms to companies and other such groups. If it is an individual that we do not know, we ask for references,” says Shehzad Saif, Chalet’s frontdesk person. Asad Malik says that Asaish “depends on businesses that send their staff (managers, executives, accountants) to Karachi for work and book them at guesthouses.” He adds that they “do a lot of marketing and go to different offices, offering them packages.” Once guesthouses form a working partnership with different companies, it means that a steady inflow of guests is assured. “If a company chooses us and we satisfy their needs, they stick with us,” he says. His guesthouse is the preferred option of a renowned cellphone company.

Mohammad Nazakat of Grace Inn maintains that “Karachi does not have tourists. All of our clients are NGOs and companies.”So for businesses that send their employees to Karachi on a regular basis, guesthouses are a convenient partnership because they offer good services at a reasonable price. Apart from this clientele, guesthouses also welcome a lot of families who come to the city during the wedding season, as well as during summer vacations. Mohammad Nazakat told Newsline that they also host hospital patients sometimes. “If a person is from out of town and he has surgery or something in a few days, he would come and stay with us,” he says .

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Almost all of the city’s guesthouses are housed in big bungalows so the bedrooms, kitchen and living spaces immediately give a feeling of comfort and familiarity. They do not have a constant traffic of people as hotels do; only those who are staying at a guesthouse come and go and use its services and common spaces. In this respect, exclusivity and privacy is also greater in a guesthouse than in a hotel.       

An added advantage that guesthouses have is location. They are scattered all over the city in areas such as Clifton, Defence, P.E.C.H.S and main Shara-e-Faisal, which allows visitors to Karachi to pick and chose the most convenient location. “Location is very important and people chose a guesthouse that is nearest to their workplace. A guesthouse maybe of top quality but if a client has to go to work at Shara-e-Faisal, they would look for a guesthouse there,” says Chalet’s Shehzad Saif. Asad Malik of Asaish says that “clients prefer a place which is closest to their work so that they can get there on time and come back quickly once they are done. They do not want to spend too much time commuting.” He adds that this is particularly true for foreign visitors, who are hesitant to “spend too much time outside and be noticed.” Grace Inn’s Mohammad Nazakat says that guesthouses are located in quiet streets and not on crowded main roads unlike the city’s major hotels, which is also a plus point for them.

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Anonymity, or at least a low-profile, is definitely a plus. Guesthouses can provide a sense of security for visitors, especially those who come for abroad.

Anonymity, or at least a low-profile, is definitely a plus. Guesthouses can provide a sense of security for visitors, especially those who come for abroad. Chalet says that hotels are at high risk of attacks since 2001, so security is a major reason why guesthouses are being preferred more and more over hotels. Asaish reiterates the same point: “The bigger your name is, the bigger target you are.” People who are not staying at a guesthouse are not allowed to enter the premises, so that might also make visitors feel safer. But others such as Grace Inn were not convinced that security, or the lack thereof, was a major decider. After all, everyone knows that if criminals or terrorists want to kidnap or kill an important personality or group, there is nobody really to stop them. At the end of the day, it is all about perception and the best one can do is make visitors feel secure through symbolic measures such as armed guards and CCTVs.

Who are the people behind these guesthouses? Guesthouses are businesses and since there is a demand for them, there are people who are willing to invest money in this market. The market certainly is big and in some spots in P.E.C.H.S, entire streets are full of guesthouses. There is no fixed profile of investors, except for the fact that these are people who see the potential in guesthouses. The owners of Asaish are among such investors. Grace Inn is owned by a group that also has guesthouses in other cities. There are many well known companies who have their own guesthouses for their employees. Unilever is one example and there are a few banks who are opening their guesthouses. Does this pose a threat to the business prospects of the guesthouses like the ones Newsline spoke to? Asad Malik of Asaish Guesthouse does not think so and says that “there are many other businesses and offices in Karachi. If we lose one client, we will find a different one.” However, Chalet, which is owned by architect and Indus Valley School of Art teacher Mujahid Sadiq, told Newsline that guesthouses will face a threat if hotels start to reduce their prices.

Guesthouses in Karachi can be a mixed bag. A visitor can get stuck at some very unpleasant ones as well. There is a lack of consistency in the quality which is not the case with top hotels in Karachi since they maintain certain standards. If you stay at places like Avari, Sheraton and Marriott, there is pretty much a guarantee that you will be satisfied with your stay. But the same cannot be said for guesthouses, because not all of them have the required level of service, facilities and ambience. It is easy to choose a hotel in Karachi but it is tricky to pick the appropriate guesthouse. Very few guesthouses have proper websites and unless one has connections in this city or know people who have already stayed at one, it would be very risky to just book a room in any guesthouse, especially for foreign visitors. “Websites is one area that guesthouses need to improve,” Asad Malik agrees. It is the same as in North America and Europe where there are many cheap, below par and rowdy travel lodges, backpack hostels and motels. Ending up at one of them could be a nightmare.

Moreover, not every guesthouse is interested in running a proper business and catering to visitors. In fact, there are many guesthouses in Karachi which serve as a den for prostitution. If you come across a guesthouse that advertises itself as a ‘place for couples,’ you should know that the purpose of that guesthouse is a bit different and that it is for another type of crowd. Such guesthouses can be very unsavoury and filthy. “Guesthouses that allow such things also permit drugs and alcohol. A sharp person will recognise such a place right away and will not stay there for more than a day,” says Asad Malik of Asaish Guesthouse. A good guesthouse, on the other hand, does not even allow walk-in and in-city guests. “In-city guests do not have a reason to stay in guesthouses. The police have told us not to give them rooms. You never know what kind of people they might turn out to be,” he adds. “Some guesthouses are engaged in shady activities and they have their own clientele,” Chalet’s Shehzad Saif told Newsline.

The business of guesthouses will continue to grow in Karachi, it would appear. Even though there are no tourists to Karachi, the city does welcome a steady stream of professionals, businessmen and NGO workers from other cities and countries. As long as this inflow continues, guesthouses will be ensured a clientele.