This past November, the world was shocked by the terrorist attacks that took place in Mumbai, India. The event unfolded over several days, leaving 170 people dead and three hotels—the Trident Hotel, the Oberoi Mumbai and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai—severely damaged.
“Mumbai is where I was born, and New York is where I live. I’m an American citizen,” says Pallavi Shah, chairperson of Our Personal Guest, a travel agency in New York City. “Both of these cities have much in common—they’re the cultural and financial capital of their countries. In both cases, terrorists wanted to attack the heart of the city and hit iconic symbols: In New York’s case, the World Trade Center, and in Mumbai’s case, the Taj and Oberoi hotels.”
While still being sensitive to the tragedy, its remarkable how quickly the damaged hotels moved to reopen for business. The Trident Hotel was the least damaged of the hotels and quickly reopened its doors. The Oberoi Mumbai and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, Mumbai both partially reopened in late December. The Oberoi opened only one of its towers, and is expected to open the other in several months. The Taj property began booking guests into its modern-era Taj Tower rooms, while the Victorian Palace wing—where most of the violence occurred—remains closed. There is no definite date set for a complete reopening of the Taj, and some estimates put it at more than a year away.
Shah’s agency concentrates on high-end travel and she regularly books clients into the Taj and Oberoi properties. “I have clients who want to return to Mumbai and stay in the same suites they previously stayed in at the Taj and the Oberoi, even those suites that were burned in the attacks,” says Shah.
Travelers continue to visit such India landmarks as the Taj Mahal in Agra
“This is a fine time to go to Mumbai—there’s lots of security,” says the indefatigable Klaus Billep, president of Santa Monica, CA-based Universal Travel Systems. “It’s like 9/11—it’s a one-time deal. There’s no real defense against terrorism unless you live in Fort Knox.”
Billep gives India high marks in responding to the situation. He’s booked clients into the Taj and Oberoi in Mumbai, but he also notes that Mumbai has many fine hotels from major chains. A partial list of name-brand hotels in Mumbai includes Best Western The Emerald, Comfort Inn Heritage, Hotel Grand Hyatt Mumbai, InterContinental Marine Drive, Le Royal Méridien Mumbai, Quality Inn Parle International and the Renaissance Mumbai Hotel & Convention Centre. Last year saw the opening of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts’ first property in India, the Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai. Hotels on the horizon in 2009 include Four Points by Sheraton Navi Mumbai, Vashi, opening April 1; and the Westin Mumbai Garden City (both at www.starwoodhotels.com), opening July 1.
Shah notes that the double whammy for India is the current economic scenario added to November’s terror attack. In the aftermath of last month’s tragedy, hotel prices in India dropped an average of 30 percent throughout the country. India’s Ministry of Tourism is currently working with tour operators to create discounted packages that bundle hotel and air with attractive incentives. Tour operators are also planning to host free trips for 1,000 tourism players to scope out the situation for themselves.
Shah is in the talking stages of coordinating a “Support Mumbai” trip that would show solidarity with the city. The trip would target various organizations in the travel industry while also reaching out to the general public. Shah envisions it as a super reintroduction to Mumbai. “Hotels will pitch in certainly; air, maybe,” she says. “At least part of the proceeds would go to the Taj and Oberoi programs for employees killed in the attacks.” Shah envisions participants in the trip reaching out to sponsors who would donate money; much in the way donations are collected in AIDS Walkathons and efforts of that nature. As the Support Mumbai effort takes shape, Travel Agent will post developments on www.travelagentcentral.com.
To Go or Not to Go
“We’ve had some India cancellations, but surprisingly, these same clients who cancel travel to India continue to travel to Israel,” says Shah. She currently has clients—a couple with two children—traveling in Southern India. They were planning their trip while the attacks took place and subsequently departed for India in late December.
“If a client wanted to travel to India and didn’t have a preference where they would go, I would recommend that they travel to the south,” says Shah. “Mumbai is mainly a business destination anyway.” Shah characterizes the geographical difference between North and South India as being similar to the distance between Florida and New York.
As we go to press, there’s a U.S. Government Travel Alert in effect until January 31. The Department of State warns U.S. citizens that there is a high threat of terrorism throughout India, and advises U.S. citizens traveling to, or already in, India to maintain a high level of vigilance and to take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness, especially during the end-of-year holidays until India’s Republic Day, January 26.
Shah has one final observation about travel to Mumbai: “If they have fear and feel vulnerable about traveling to Mumbai, then they’re not the ones to go.”