Is it safe to travel to India? State Dept. says yes, but be vigilant

After the Mumbai terrorist attacks killed 171 people and wounded hundreds of others last month, business travelers may wonder whether traveling in India is safe.

Security experts, the U.S. State Department, and the Canadian and British governments are not advising travelers to avoid going there. But Australia says: Stay away.

"The Mumbai terrorist attacks had — and still have — a very low likelihood of happening," says Bruce McIndoe, president of iJet, a security consulting company in Annapolis, Md.

The Mumbai attacks changed "the perceptions of risk," but "India is no more risky than it was before," says Jake Stratton, director of India operations for Control Risks, a London-based security consultant.

In an alert posted on its website Dec. 4, the State Department said there are "heightened security concerns" in India and advised travelers "to maintain a high level of vigilance." It did not issue a "travel warning," which it does when travelers should avoid a country.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, though, advises travelers "to reconsider" any need to travel to India.

"The Mumbai attacks show terrorists in India are deliberately targeting Westerners," the Australian agency says. "Further attacks cannot be ruled out. These attacks could take place at any time, anywhere, in places frequented by foreigners."

Security experts say that hotels in India, or elsewhere, are not equipped to stop a terrorist group with automatic weapons, such as the one that attacked Mumbai's luxury hotels the Taj Mahal and the Oberoi last month.

"Only federal government sites are hardened to be able to withstand an assault with automatic weapons like the one in Mumbai," says Brian Ivie, chief security officer for Hewitt Associates, a global human resources company.

The company has many employees who travel to India, including one who was evacuated by police from one of the Mumbai hotels that were attacked.

The Trident portion of the Oberoi hotel complex and parts of the Taj Mahal reopened Dec. 21, but the main areas of the Oberoi and Taj are expected to stay closed for months. Security was noticeably upgraded at both hotels, according to the Associated Press.

Devendra Bharma, executive vice president of Oberoi Hotels and Resorts in Mumbai, says security "has been enhanced" at all the Oberoi Group's hotels. Oberoi Group manages or owns 30 hotels and cruise ships in India, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Mauritius.

Australia's caution

Though companies and government officials have taken many steps to improve security in India since the Mumbai attacks, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns travelers who decide to go there to "exercise extreme caution."

Travelers should be particularly careful before, and during, major Indian holidays, security experts warn. Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cites Republic Day on Jan. 26 and Independence Day on Aug. 15.

"Militants have, in a number of past instances, marked such occasions with attacks," the agency says.

Australia and the State Department agree that travelers should not travel near the India-Pakistan border and to many areas of Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed region where about 60,000 people have been killed in terrorist and military actions since 1989.

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