x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Airport woke sleeping giant

40 years of the UAE: A terminal worker's observation in the 1950s led to the birth of the country's hotel industry.

Following on from the success of the three-roomed Dubai Guest House, Lakhmichand Lulla opened the Airlines Hotel in Bur Dubai in 1958. The hotel trade has since gone from strength to strength.
Following on from the success of the three-roomed Dubai Guest House, Lakhmichand Lulla opened the Airlines Hotel in Bur Dubai in 1958. The hotel trade has since gone from strength to strength.

DUBAI // In the mid-1950s, Lakhmichand Lulla, a young duty manager at Sharjah Airport, noticed a problem.

The country had not a single hotel, so airport passengers were forced to sleep on the terminal floor as they waited for their flight out.

Watching their cramped discomfort, it became clear to Mr Lulla that they needed somewhere to stay. And so, in 1956, he opened the Dubai Guesthouse, its three rooms laying the foundation stone of the country's hotel industry.

"One room was taken by the [Abu Dhabi oil company] PDTC all year, one room was for the Ruler's office, and then one room was kept for guests," said Prakash Lulla, the hotelier's son. "And it was always full."

His mother used to cook for the guests while his father ran the guesthouse. Two years of full occupancy later, Mr Lulla Sr decided something bigger was needed and opened the country's first proper hotel, the Airlines Hotel.

With two storeys, the eight-room hotel towered above the other structures in Bur Dubai. It was unique at the time in having running water, en suite bathrooms, and kerosene lamps.

It had a restaurant, too, that not only offered food rarely seen in Dubai - including Italian - but pioneered what was to become a mainstay of Dubai's restaurants: the Friday brunch.

"The hotel was like a funnel; almost everyone went through there because of the airport and my father, and it became a hub for all the top families and expats," said Mr Lulla Jr, who is now the director of the Astoria and Ambassador hotels in Bur Dubai, both of which his father opened.

The Airlines Hotel was also frequented by the Ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed, who supported Mr Lulla Sr in expanding the hotel. "Sheikh Rashid was kind enough to give my father the land that was located behind the Airlines Hotel, so he could build 34 more rooms," said his son.

The Airlines Hotel remained as the country's oldest hotel until 1975, when it was discovered that its foundations had been weakened by nearby dynamiting, and it was demolished.

By that time Mr Lulla Sr had already opened the Ambassador Hotel across the road, which, 43 years later, still stands as the UAE's oldest hotel. He also opened the Astoria, eight years later.

His son remembers the opening of the Ambassador very well. "My father went to the Ruler and said, 'Your Highness, I think Dubai is now ready for a world-class hotel', so Sheikh Rashid built the hotel for him to run it." Next to the Airlines Hotel, the Ambassador was gigantic; with eight storeys and 40 rooms it became the Ruler's pride and glory. Sheikh Rashid often hosted banquets there for his guests, including one given in honour of the Indian prime minister, Indira Gandhi, when she visited in 1968.

"My dad worked so hard and had so much energy," said Mr Lulla Jr, recalling how his father communicated with the Ruler.

"He even spoke Arabic as fluently as a local tribesman, and he understood right from the beginning that languages break a lot of barriers and can take you places. Look where it took my father."

molson@thenational.ae