Wiser from 26/11, Indian tourism bouncing back

A foreign tourist taking pictures at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus(CST) railway station on the eve of the 2nd anniversary of 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, in Mumbai on Thursday. PTI

Sabina Chopra, co-founder of yatra.com, a travel portal, said: "In 2010, we are expecting to see a growth of 10-12 percent in the travel industry. In the previous year, the growth was around eight-nine percent."

According to a tourism ministry official, between January and October this year, 4.32 million tourists arrived in India - a growth of 9.9 percent over the corresponding period in 2009.

Hoteliers have gone so far as to say the winter season has exceeded their expectations and the upward cycle will peak in 2012. "With winters here, the tourist season is in full swing and the slump of 2008 seems to be finally over," said Rajan Mehta, a tour operator.

It's a far cry from the time when the travel trade fell victim to 26/11, a setback that was compounded by swine flu and global recession. According to the tourism ministry, in the first 11 months of 2009 - soon after the attacks - foreign tourist arrivals saw a decline of 17.6 percent. The financial meltdown and the swine flu outbreak which happened around the same time also contributed to the downfall.

"It's not just terror attacks, if there is a natural calamity like an earthquake or a flood, or an epidemic, then tourism is the first casualty. Similar was the case during the Mumbai terror attacks," according to Gour Kanjilal of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO).

"Two years on, I think the industry is more cautious and you can see that with the beefed up security in hotels," Kanjilal told IANS. On Nov 26, 2008, a handful of terrorists held Mumbai - including two five-star hotels - hostage, killing 166 people and shocking the world. The attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel and the Oberoi Trident were in fact said to have been aimed at foreigners.

Chopra of yatra.com said: "In the first three months after the Mumbai attacks, from November to February, there were almost no travel bookings at all and there were mass cancellations. Before that the industry was seeing a 15-16 percent growth. Things started improving around the latter part of 2009."

She said while the more robust domestic market jumped back soon after the attacks, the international market took time to recover. This was mainly because various embassies issued advisories on travel after the incident, raising questions about safety.

"No matter how many precautions you may take, no country can say we are completely safe now. However, after the 26/11 attacks, the travel industry has definitely learnt its lessons," she said. "The security in airports and in hotels is much more stringent now than two years back. You need a valid identification proof to book a room, cars are scrutinised with care, there are metal detectors placed at entrances and any suspicious behaviour invites prompt action," Chopra told IANS.

Tour operator Mehta, however, said more could be done on the security front. "If you talk about lessons from that period, then yes, the hotel industry is more cautious about security. But then again, it's mostly the five stars which have elaborate security measures. If you go to the smaller hotels, then except for asking for your ID proof, there is hardly any additional security measure.

"Ultimately one has to realise that security is as much a collective responsibility as it is the government's." Jean Hoerni, a French national who is in Delhi on a work-cum-pleasure trip, said he was in India last year too.

"I had gone to Goa then. This year I am planning to visit Kerala. As far as security is concerned, tell me which country is safe from terrorist threats today? But that doesn't mean that we remain in fear all the time and stop living! So why should we stop travelling?" Hoerni asked.

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