'India's 9/11' brings tourism concerns, more warnings

The bullet-ridden Leopold Cafe, one of Mumbai, India's most iconic tourist draws, reopened for business this week — just days after a wave of terrorist attacks killed at least 170 people in the city, including five Americans.

But how quickly tourism will recover from what some pundits are calling "India's 9/11" — and in the face of new warnings of possible attacks on three major airports — is much less certain.

Travel from the USA to India was up 10% last year over 2006, with just under 1 million Americans visiting in 2007. But the global economic crisis had already crippled Indian tourism this year, with hotel occupancy rates down sharply from 2007, says Jared Blank, New York-based CEO of Tripmela.com, an India travel newsletter.

And in the aftermath of last week's massacres, which included shootings at the Oberoi Trident and Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotels, "travel agencies are reporting that Americans are abandoning tours of India months into the future," says Blank. This week, the Indian Association of Tour Operators told Reuters it expected a 10% to 15% drop in arrivals.

The U.S. State Department's current India travel alert no longer advises Americans to avoid non-essential travel to Mumbai. But it urges them to "maintain a high level of vigilance, " and adds: "The November 26 attacks in part targeted American citizens and other westerners for the first time and tragically demonstrate that even in five-star luxury hotels, security is not equipped to deter such attacks."

Security was increased across India Thursday, after warnings of possible airborne attacks focused on three major airports — New Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai.

Tauck World Discovery, based in Norwalk, Conn., had a group of 29 in Mumbai when the shootings began, and a Tauck passenger from Sydney was killed at the Taj Mahal hotel. The company canceled its Dec. 11 India tour this week and has altered a Dec. 18 tour to avoid Mumbai.

Tour operators Abercrombie & Kent and Intrepid Travel also changed December itineraries to skip stays in Mumbai, but say they've received only a handful of U.S. cancellations. And postings on the travel site IndiaMike.com have been "overwhelmingly positive" in favor of continuing trips, says site owner Arjun Nadkarni.

In the long run, a staggering economy could well trump terrorism fears among American travelers, adds Lalia Rach, dean of the Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management at New York University.

"It depends on how this escalates between India and Pakistan," says Rach. "But if we were held captive by the possibility of terrorism, Americans wouldn't be flocking to D.C. for the presidential inauguration. We know we have to go on with our lives."

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