Plans for India travel

This item appears on page 38 of the February 2009 issue.

As a US citizen originally from India and now a tour company owner, I am writing regarding the November ’08 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.

I should be angry at the terrorists for subjecting so many families to horror by killing and injuring innocents. I should be angry at the politicians in India for having failed to provide the safety and security that citizens and visitors expect. How can a handful of men armed only with guns and grenades cause so much damage in human life and property?

But this is not the time for finding fault. It is time to celebrate the good deeds of the brave souls who saved lives and also to stand up against terrorism, to let the terrorists know that their cowardly acts are wrong and do not scare us.

I was there that night in the Taj Mahal hotel, in the beautiful Heritage wing. I saw with my own eyes what most of us would perhaps see only in movies. I was shot at but was able to lock myself in my room. I heard the dreadful gunfire and grenade blasts all night. It was surreal and horrific.

My survival was perhaps due to sheer luck or divine intervention. For my family back home in California, Thanksgiving this past year gained new meaning.

I want to salute the workers of the Taj hotel and the security forces who tried to save lives in very dangerous conditions.

Please join me in sending our deepest condolences and prayers to the families who lost their loved ones and to those who are affected by this tragedy.

Religious tolerance and peaceful coexistence have been the foundation of Indian culture for over 3,000 years. In ancient India, the man with more knowledge and wisdom was more respected than the one with more wealth, arms and power.

India today has 1.1 billion people and a unique society a hundredfold more diverse than anyplace else in the world. Over the ages, its culture has assimilated Persians, Greeks and Turks as well as people from China, Africa and the Far East. Jews have thrived there without fear of persecution for centuries.

A peaceful nation, India has never attacked another sovereign nation, and today it is the largest democracy in the world and is viewed as an engine for economic growth. It is hard to imagine that a country which was largely perceived in the West as backward, chaotic and full of poverty and hunger has contributed to the world so significantly.

From a tourism point of view, India continues to be a favorite amongst seasoned travelers, who find the people most friendly and a visit to India most rewarding.

While there have been some low-tech terrorist attacks in India in the past, they were directed toward the Hindu majority, not tourists. Similarly, terrorist attacks have been successful around the world in cities and countries each with very high-tech security forces: Madrid, London, Israel, Russia and, of course, the United States, where 19 men armed only with box cutters caused so much havoc in 2001. Until the world figures out a way to root out evil, we all have to accept the fact that we now live in a different world. Terrorism will continue in one way or another.

Probably the biggest goal of terrorists is to cause panic and mayhem and to destroy what most of us in the democratic world believe in.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, some foreign governments issued travel warnings advising their citizens to skip Mumbai altogether; however, later warnings were diluted to express that life in Mumbai has, by and large, returned to normal. In fact, both the Oberoi/Trident and Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotels reopened for business on Dec. 21.

The US State Department has not added India to the travel warnings list; instead, it has issued a travel alert recommending that tourists keep a low profile.

The killing of foreign nationals in the Mumbai terror attacks might have given international publicity to terrorists, but in the process they have “acquired” a large number of “powerful enemies,” a former UN official has said.

Outrage by citizens of India has already resulted in the resignation of many politicians; the establishment of new security measures at hotels and airports; the formation of a new National Investigating Agency, along the lines of the US National Security Agency, and the beefing up of the coast guard with new pledges for security equipment and aircraft.

Because of heightened security everywhere, it is perhaps safer to travel in India now than it was before.

The big question for all of us is should we succumb to the panic which the terrorists want to create? Keep in mind, the more we are afraid and allow ourselves to live in fear, the more we are letting the terrorists win.

What can you as a common citizen do?

It is important to choose your travel plans carefully. You should continue to take precautions and keep safety a primary goal. Keep your eyes and ears open, avoiding large political gatherings and very late nights out alone in foreign lands. Make sure to study the fire evacuation maps always found behind hotel room doors. Carry a working cellular phone.

Instead of winging it, you might consider letting your travel expert plan and arrange all logistics in advance.

In a study of hotel attacks from 1968 through mid-2005, it was found that the likelihood of a hotel guest’s being killed in a terrorist attack was about one in a million. In contrast, the average American has about a one-in-8,000 chance of dying in an auto accident.

Let us not stop living our normal lives. Let us not stop traveling. Life must go on. The rewards of traveling are greater than the drawbacks of airport security lines and other such inconveniences.

In solidarity with the Indian tourism industry, of which I have been a part since 1976, I am personally leading two trips to India and Bhutan in March-May 2009. It is encouraging to know that most of the US citizens who had planned to travel with us to India in the coming months have not canceled their trips.

NINO MOHAN, Worldview Tours, Newport Beach, CA (plus New Delhi and Agra, India)