This is a transcript from an interview on Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio…
Peter Greenberg: On evening before Thanksgiving, I was at NBC in New York and received a harrowing email from a very good friend of mine.
He essentially said to me, “I’m locked in my office. We’re in a lockdown situation. My wife is in the restaurant with 200 other hostages. The security has cornered five gunman to the fifth and sixth floors and they’re about to open fire.”
I turned on the television and there I saw the sixth floor of the Taj Hotel erupt into flames. We all saw those harrowing images of what just 10 gunman were able to do in 10 separate locations around Mumbai: two hotels, a restaurant, a train station, a Jewish center. It was just horrendous.
I checked in with my good pal Johnny Jet who was traveling in India at the time of the attacks:
Johnny Jet: I was in Central India on a tiger safari when that happened, and I was actually supposed to be at the Taj Hotel 36 hours later. I saw the CNN breaking news alert and my heart started pounding. I had to stay an extra day in Central India, but I needed to go to Mumbai anyway to fly to my next destination. When I told my family I was going they were really the ones who put the fear in me because they were like “You cannot go to Mumbai. Go back to Delhi to get a flight. Or, fly back to Brussels and go home.” But I was like “I can’t let these terrorists get to me. Otherwise they won.”
PG: Exactly. So you went to Mumbai?
JJ: I went to Mumbai. It was about 48 hours after the initial attack. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt at Mumbai which is about 15 minutes away from the Taj. At the street level of the hotel, they’re checking underneath the car for bombs. Then they frisked people walking into the hotel. And to enter the lobby, you had to walk through a metal detector.
PG: I’ve always said this: A hotel is a terrorist’s dream because it has multiple entrances and exits, easy vehicle access, and dozens, if not hundreds, of unattended bags in the lobby. And that when—not if—we have an incident, whether it’s in India or Indianapolis, we will end up in a situation where there will be metal detectors in the lobbies, and maybe there should be.
JJ: Right, it’s something to think about and it’s scary. At one of their entrances they had two cars blocking it so no one could ram into the hotel. But there’s not much you can do to defend yourself when there are guys coming in with automatic weapons who are ready to die themselves.
PG: Well, many of them did not come in the main entrances. They came back in the back entrances through the kitchen where they realized there would be less resistance. So every hotel entrance has to be somewhat protected. I’m not saying that hotels have to be like fortresses, but they are vulnerable. One of the reasons you stay at a hotel is because of safety—not just because of convenience and location. They have to provide that. And that’s why we all react with shock and indignation of how could this happen.
I did a piece on the Today show three years ago showing the vulnerability of hotels on those three areas of multiple entrances and exits, easy vehicle access, and unattended bags in the lobby. The Marriott Group is actually constructing what they call a blast-proof lobby which aesthetically looks pleasing but has very little glass and a lot of concrete.
Let’s check in with Matt Phillips from the Wall Street Journal, who covered this story in the “Middle Seat Terminal” blog, about how this is going to affect travel in the region.
Obviously there’s a knee-jerk reaction with a situation like this where people immediately say “OK, I’m not going. I’m going to cancel or postpone the trip.” But what is going to happen in the long term?
Matt Phillips: Basically, if there is a downturn, it’s going to be temporary. People tend to be a bit surprised at how quickly things do bounce back. But, in the short term, there will an effect that some say will be severe. (read more about the potential effects)
PG: Well I remember in 1997 the terrible attack in Luxor in which Americans weren’t targeted, but German and Swiss tourists were. More than 60 people were killed, and then guess what? The Egyptians woke up. They increased their security and in two to three months things were turned around.
MP: Unfortunately, the tourism industry has a lot of experience now with how things can change after attacks like this. There were also the attacks in Bali in 2002, and further attacks along the Egypt/Israeli border in 2004, and on the Sinai Peninsula. And, of course, the attacks of September 11th.
PG: So we need to practice a little common sense and protective thinking before we leave. But I would certainly go back to Mumbai tomorrow. (read more about that here) I saw that the State Department has issued warnings for India and Thailand.
MP: Yes, they issued travel alerts that will go through early January, which basically advises Americans to be vigilant, to take their surroundings into account when they travel, and to expect security measures at airports. In India, especially, the government had been tuned into possible threats relating to airports.
PG: Johnny you just came back from Mumbai. Would you go back tomorrow?
JJ: I would go back tomorrow. But here’s a question: When I was there one of my friends told me to register with the State Department. What do you think about that? You log into their Web site to enter all the details of where you’re traveling, so if anything goes down they’ll get you out.
PG: Our State Department? Are you kidding? No, let’s get real here. This is my own personal preference and people can disagree with me if they want: I’ve been in places in the world where you-know-what has hit the fan and you know where I head? I go directly for the Canadian Embassy. Those guys are totally cool—they don’t lock the doors, they let you in, and they’ll help you. The myth is that when something goes bad, the U.S. embassy is going to take care of you and fly you home. You know what? You got a one in 10 shot on that one. It’s the same thing with the Australian Embassy. They’re very cool and don’t go into lockdown. American citizens can’t even get into their own embassy.
Look, you’re not going to lose anything by giving people your data and information. But if you’ve got a BlackBerry that works, people are going know where you are.
The bottom line is that I really encourage people to really practice and embrace common sense and you’ll be fine. The best time to go to a location, as insensitive as this sounds, is after they’ve had a civil disturbance, a natural disaster, or an act of terrorism because everyone will be so much happier to see you and you’re supporting the very people who earn their living from this.
I’ll make you a bet, economic downturn notwithstanding, doesn’t change the fact that India is a phenomenal country and it deserves us to see it.
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