Wed, Dec 03, 2008 - Page 9 News List

Mumbai blasts shake up hotel security

Three years ago, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rather smugly told US President George W. Bush that Indian Muslims were not involved in any act of terrorism, but some terrorists may have read his self-congratulation as a challenge

By Keith Bradsher  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , MUMBAI, INDIA

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

For decades, luxury hotels have been oases for travelers in developing countries, places to mingle with the local elite, enjoy a lavish meal or a dip in the pool and sleep in a clean, safe room.

But last week’s lethal attacks on two of India’s most famous hotels — coming just two months after a huge truck bomb devastated the Marriott in Islamabad, Pakistan — have underlined the extent to which these hotels are becoming magnets for terrorists. Worse, hotel executives and security experts say that little can be done to stop people like the extensively trained gunmen with military assault rifles and grenades who launched the attacks on the Oberoi and Taj Mahal Palace & Tower.

P.R.S. Oberoi, the chairman of the Oberoi Group, said at a news conference over the weekend that he had directed his company’s hotels to step up security after the Islamabad bombing. The Oberoi banned anyone from parking in front of its hotel for fear that a car bomb could destroy the glass wall at the front of the lobby, a risk at many hotels.

But those protections did not deter the attackers, who entered the Oberoi on foot.

P.R.S. Oberoi questioned whether any hotel could defend against such an assault.

“The authorities have to help us,” he said, by preventing attacks from occurring at all.

The Taj, it turns out, had warning, according to both an Indian government official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, and Ratan Tata, the chairman of the company that owns the hotel. In an interview on CNN, Tata said the hotel had temporarily increased security after being warned of a possible terrorist attack. But he said those measures were eased shortly before last week’s attacks and could not have prevented gunmen from entering the hotel.

US hotel chains have policies against discussing security precautions, but watched the Mumbai hotel sieges closely.

“We never talk about security measures in our hotels because to talk about what we do would compromise them, but I think it’s fair to say what happened in Mumbai is going to re-energize them,” said Vivian Deuschl, the spokeswoman for the Ritz Carlton Hotel Co, a Marriott subsidiary.

Some hotels in Asia already take elaborate precautions, particularly in countries with histories of attacks on Western luxury hotels.

At the Grand Hyatt in Jakarta, Indonesia, for example, guards check the trunks of all vehicles and even use mirrors to check cars’ underbodies for explosives before letting them drive to the entrance. Guests’ baggage is opened and checked by hand for suspicious objects, and everyone must go through a metal detector before entering the building.

In Pakistan’s major cities, where hotels have been targets for years, already tight security at some hotels has become even more intrusive since the Marriott bombing. Guests have to pass through at least one, and often, several security checkpoints on their way into the hotels; some are staffed by paramilitaries. At the luxury Serena Hotel in Islamabad, those who wish to enter are grilled about where they are going and whom they are meeting.

But security experts say such measures — and even some lesser ones — will be difficult to implement outside of war zones or countries where hotels have already been made targets, even after the attacks in Mumbai.

“It is incredibly difficult to have a quick-fix solution to what we saw,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert with the Swedish National Defense College. “You are struck with the dilemma of having a complete lockdown. Tourists don’t want that. They want to participate in the culture, they want to experience it.”

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