India is known the world over as the land of hospitality. Today, Hospitality India is under siege; held to ransom by a bunch of radical terrorists who have decided to make sure that they are heard – loud and clear. The hospitality industry has, unfortunately, always been at the forefront of bearing the brunt of acts of terror around the globe. Is this India's 9/11? The fact that the hotel sector has been so visibly impacted will undoubtedly lead to consequences that are too scary to imagine. The global economic crisis of the past few months has been difficult enough. This has just compounded the situation further.
The world has been witness to ghastly attacks of terrorism in recent years. The bombing of the Marriott in Islamabad not long ago and the Bali bombings are grim reminders. Mumbai itself is no stranger to terrorism. However, Wednesday's attack, both huge in scale and impact, is shocking to say the very least. There are a large number of terrorists involved in this sinister plot. Two landmark hotels, a hospital, the VT railway station, an iconic restaurant, a nearby residential building and at least another four locations were attacked. The modus operandi was not a bomb planted but grenades, AK 47s and machine guns used against innocent lives with a clear intent to scare people, break India's backbone of economic growth, and extend as much damage to the Indian financial capital as possible.
The hotels involved - The Taj Mahal Palace, The Taj Mahal Towers (the Heritage wing and the Tower wing, respectively, both of which are part of the same building but operate as separate hotels), the Trident and the Oberoi (both of which are also interconnected), have 1,700 plus rooms. The hotels were operating at a high occupancy on the night of the attack. It is our estimate that, at the time of the first attack, there would have been close to 2,500 persons - guests and employees - at these properties. These hotels are in south Mumbai, Mumbai's most posh district, and are busy hubs of international visitation at any given time of the year. We at HVS are a team of hoteliers. Every one of us has friends, colleagues and associates at these hotels, some of whom we know are no more. Death stares us all in the face as we learn with every passing hour that another old colleague just lost his life to this madness. Throughout the past day and night we have been getting calls from friends and family about the horrific events unfolding. More than 36 hours later, there are close to 200 people inside these hotels, either holed up or trapped.
While our hearts go out to them, it would be unfair not to recognize the many hotel staff that have put their own safety at risk to save other lives. An example is that of a general manager who was seen assisting guests out of the hotel within the initial hours of the attack, only to realize the next day that he had been unable to save his own family. Yet another instance is that of a senior executive who, on the second night of rescue operations, made trips inside the hotel with the commandoes to guide them through the maze of the back-of-the-house to pull guests out to safety. Our thoughts also go out to the policemen and army men who have shown immense courage and resilience in the face of such grave danger.
The grenades used at the 105-year-old Taj Mahal resulted in fires erupting across the rooftop of this hotel. Worse still is the utter helplessness of seeing this icon of Indian hospitality burn and officials not being able to do anything about this.
Most Indians are outraged. One can't help but ask just how something so unimaginable could transpire. The usual political rhetoric about "weighing the consequences of this attack and taking appropriate action" is just not acceptable anymore. I firmly believe that it is time for change – radical change. Poorly planned and inefficiently executed national security measures will just not do. The time to be reactive has come and gone. India must now be proactive. If this is indeed India's 9/11, then it is about time that the forces of terror be given a loud and clear message – India may be the land of hospitality, but do not confuse hospitality with cowardice.
Mumbai is India's commercial capital and the pulse of our nation's economy. While this attack has stunned us and saddened us deeply, it can by no means shake the foundation of a city as strong and resilient as Mumbai. Today's events, though outrageous do not change our views about Mumbai's future as a destination. In the words of Krishna Kumar, Vice Chairman of Indian Hotels (Taj), "The Taj Mahal Mumbai will be rebuilt - brick by brick, inch by inch". We are certain that the Oberoi group, with their rich heritage in Indian hospitality, will also leave no stone unturned to bring the Oberoi and Trident hotels back to their original glory. We look forward to these hotels opening their doors for business again. Our faith in Mumbai remains unshaken.
As HVS we also appeal to the international community to stand by us in this time of need. When 9/11 happened, the world stood by New York; when the bombings in London and Madrid took place, international governments and travel trade showed their support. I would hope that India will be treated no differently, and we need all the support. The global slowdown's effect on hospitality is bad enough, but travel embargoes on what is essentially a safe and stable country would have devastating effects and we cannot afford to have that happen. I would like to conclude by saying that our thoughts and prayers are with all the unfortunate victims of this tragedy in Mumbai, in particular our colleagues at both the Oberoi and the Taj, who have not only been personally affected but have seen many of their co-workers fall victim.