When the city began to close in on them during the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the well-heeled Mumbaikars fled, lugging work and family, to the quiet stretches of the coastal town.
In August, when the novel coronavirus drove panicked citizens indoors, Aayush Agrawal, who was hunkering down at his home in Worli, went ahead and bought a five bedroom house at Awas, Alibag. “I like to be in my bubble and this place offers just that,” says the 31-year-old founder of the restaurant chain Chinese Wok (earlier known as Wok Express).
He catches up on his work — he has 35 restaurants across Mumbai and Pune — from the expanse of his 2.5 acres in the beach town, while his two-year-old kid plays in the garden. “Here I can live with nature while being mindful of safety and comfort. I am striking a balance between work and leisure,” says Agrawal, who has spent more time in Alibag than in Mumbai since August.
Alibag — about 100 km from Mumbai — is a coastal town in Raigad district in Maharashtra. Until Covid-19 struck, it was a weekend destination or a second home for posh Mumbaikars. Now, it is a work from home haven — with creature comforts and pristine beaches, Wi-Fi and green patches — for entrepreneurs and professionals, who are shifting base, to live and work there for long stretches. It helps that there are no offices to walk into everyday or schools to send children to. Alibag is quite their primary home in the pandemic.
“I am pretty much living in Alibag now,” says restaurateur Gauri Devidayal, cofounder of The Table. She moved in with her family to their two-acre property in Sasawane, about 10 minutes from the Mandwa jetty, in August. “Working from Alibag, I have managed to streamline my food delivery business. If one has a home in Alibag, then one doesn’t need to live in Mumbai. It’s a no-brainer. It’s the quality of life that matters,” says Devidayal. Apart from Devidayal’s Miss T, Iktara and Mag St Bread Co, Mumbai restaurants like Mexican Box, Americano and Swati deliver food daily to to their clientele in Alibag.
Gauri Devidayal, 39, Cofounder, The Table
Devidayal’s restaurants ferry Southeast Asian dishes, bakes and pizzas to the town, while she grows baby spinach, kale, cherry tomatoes and broccoli at her farm for her Mumbai eateries. “We have set the house up in such a way that we barely have to leave it — except for walks on the beach.” Her only concern is when her seven-year-old daughter will have to go back to school in Mumbai.
As the stay in Alibag gets longer, homes are getting renovated and refurbished, the grounds landscaped. Agrawal, for instance, is adding fruit trees and flowering plants to his garden and creating a small community of neighbours.
Bharat Daftary, founder of Bharat Serums & Vaccines, is renovating his house. Daftary has spent at least three of the past six months at his home in Alibag. “Here I can go for early morning walks and swimming. I can also catch up with my office work. Where in Mumbai can one be with nature and hear the chirping of so many birds in the morning?” asks Daftary, who sold a majority stake in Bharat Serums & Vaccines to US-based private equity fund Advent International last year.
Daftary, like many others, takes the newly launched roll-on roll-off (ro-ro) ferry to flit between Alibag and Mumbai. He says it takes just one and a half hours to travel from his home in Cuffe Parade, Mumbai, to his bungalow near Mandwa.
The ro-ro ferry, launched by M2M Ferries, has made the trip to Alibag faster and more convenient for Mumbaikars. While a road trip can take four hours, this is just an hour-long ride. People can roll onboard in their cars from the Mazgaon ferry wharf in Mumbai and roll off at Mandwa jetty in Alibag.
“Alibag was a second home to a lot of people. However, with the pandemic, it became the first home as they ran away from the city to get away from the virus,” says Aashim Mongia, director, M2M Ferries.
Among those who have moved to Alibag for a prolonged WFH stint are business couple Atul and Gayatri Ruia, Supreme Court lawyer Rohan Shah, DeRisq Group CEO Zaheer Khan and Rohit Deshpande, director, IEEC Power Electronics.
Zaheer Khan, 47, has been staying with his family in their villa at Awas for about eight months now. His two sons drop in often, he says. “The open space, the sense of freedom and the seamless work environment have all worked well for me,” he says.
Karl Irani, founder of Palmore Luxury Developers, has sold several ready-to-move-in villas in the price range of `6-21 crore in the past few months. He says, “Alibag has gone from people having their second homes there to people wanting a co-primary home with all the connectivity and functionality that their homes or offices in Mumbai provide.” Irani says most of the recent buyers are in the 30-50 age bracket.
If you don’t own a home in Alibag, you rent one. Real estate agent Rahul Seth has brokered deals for about 100 houses in the last few months. He says many business families have let out their villas at Mandwa and Awas. “Such villas are white elephants, which cost anywhere between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 7 lakh annually to maintain. Rent is a new revenue channel at a time when earnings have dwindled due to Covid-19,” he says.
Pranav Maheshwari, cofounder of Vista Rooms, which has over 20 properties in Alibag, says the average length of stay and rentals have increased over the last few months. “Earlier, our homes would see only 10-12 nights of occupancy in a month. Now we see occupancy of 22-25 nights a month. The rates have seen a 20% increase,” says Maheshwari. He says there is a lot of residual demand. “While we may not go back to pre-Covid levels, sustained demand will even it out.”
Leena Mukhi, who owns the Mango Beach House, has rejigged her two boutique hotels into five villas as she felt villas are the most sought-after accommodation during the pandemic since entire families want to move into a home away from home.
A south Mumbai business family, says Seth, rented out a six-room villa at Mandwa for Rs 15 lakh a month. They arrived in March and worked out of there for six months.
Rentals and real estate prices have gone up with the opening of the ferry service. “Luxury villas with five-six bedrooms that used to cost Rs 40,000-45,000 a night now go for Rs 60,000-plus. Bungalows which were selling at Rs 9-11 crore cost Rs 12-15 crore now. 1 BHK apartment, which has taken off during the pandemic, is selling for Rs 60 lakh,” says Rajesh Bhaskaran, founder of the real estate company Earthweavers. Since many land parcels fall in the coastal regulation zone and cannot be used for development, demand is outstripping supply. Prices of farm land have gone up to Rs 10-12 crore an acre from Rs 8-10 crore a year back, says Bhaskaran.
At a time when many hotels are in a funk, Alibag is bucking the trend. Staycation is turning out to be a crowd-puller for hotels. Vishal Jamuar, general manager of Radisson Blu Resort & Spa in Alibag, was pleasantly surprised with a 50% occupancy in October. It was only a tiny dip from last October’s 56% occupancy. “And this is despite the fact that we didn’t have large group bookings in October, owing to social distancing norms and other Covid-19 restrictions. In November, too, we saw a healthy pick-up and we expect to close the month with approximately 70% occupancy. We saw a major movement of guests during the Diwali week as well,” says Jamuar.
For Rohit Deshpande, 40, who put in over Rs 1 crore for a three-bedroom apartment in Awas, it is also a homecoming. Deshpande, director, IEEC Power Electronics, hails from Raigad and has always been charmed by the coast of Alibag. He bought the apartment last October as a weekend getaway. It has turned out to be a retreat from the pandemic. Since March, he has been staying there with his family. His sixyear-old son takes online classes. “I have made full use of the apartment during the pandemic,” he says. Deshpande who stays in Borivali, a suburb of Mumbai, says there is nothing like breathing fresh air, enjoying the local cuisine and getting work done.
Not only has 4G improved connectivity, supermarkets and local eateries have sprung up, giving people more options, says Deshpande. Yet, he says, Alibag does not look crowded as it is a 45 km stretch of coastal villages. Alibag needs better facilities, though. “Alibag needs good hospitals, better supply of power and water and great schools. Once it has these, the package will be complete. In the years to come, with proper connectivity, Alibag will become Mumbai’s new preferred destination to work from and live,” says Mongia. And then it will be, horror of horrors, what Mumbaikars are fleeing from now — a Mumbai suburb.