Jakarta blasts put spotlight on hotel security

The bombings that killed at least eight and wounded more than 50 people Friday in two separate blasts at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta may be making some travelers skittish about frequenting high-profile branded hotels. But one prominent security analyst says that nationally branded chain hotels generally are safer and more secure than their independent counterparts.

Both the Jakarta hotels had been assessed by iJet, a security and intelligence company based in Annapolis, and had received high ratings, said iJet president Bruce McIndoe. Stronger security procedures had been implemented there since a car bomb went off at the Jakarta Marriott in August 2003, killing 12. The fact that Friday's blast didn't do more damage shows those measures were effective, McIndoe said.

"(With) the new security procedures, all they could do is get suicide bombers in and blow out some windows," he said. "You can't stop it — there's no 100% foolproof way. But they've minimized the impact. It was a fairly sophisticated operation. (The terrorists) put a lot of time and effort into this, with very little outcome (in terms of ) death and destruction."

Still, fire — not bomb-wielding terrorists — is the greatest safety threat to the vast majority of travelers. In an iJet risk assessment of 52 hotel properties in Jakarta, only 31 met the company's baseline safety criteria. None of the failing hotels were national brands, McIndoe notes.

"International brands are going to have a more consistent level of safety and security that are going to protect average travelers," he said.

But some travelers, such as Bali-bound Jennifer Moody of Fort Worth, said these latest bombings have given her pause about staying in Western-branded lodgings.

"The fact that suicide bombers are checking in as guests changes my perspective on hotels. It's going to prompt different choices, like maybe staying in boutique hotels or off-the-beaten-path places," says the health care consultant and frequent international traveler.

Jakarta is not a big draw for leisure travelers, and tour operators who do offer Indonesian itineraries — primarily to the island of Bali, a 1 1/2 hour flight from the Indonesian capital — reported hearing little concern from current or perspective clients.

In Bali, the hotel association raised security levels to "red" status within minutes of the Jakarta blasts, said John Daniels, president of Bali-based Bali Discovery Tours. But "a quick check across the island does not reveal any panic on the part of tourists … or, for that matter, a sudden exodus from hotels caused by people cutting short their holiday," he wrote in an e-mail.

Bombings in Bali in 2002, thought to be carried out by the same Islamist militant group involved in Friday's blasts, decimated tourism for a time, though visitors have returned.

New Yorker Lorna Schmidt, who'll be traveling solo to Bali at the end of August, said a friend questioned her Thursday about the safety of going there. She shrugged it off, saying, "This kind of stuff could happened anywhere. You can't stay home."

Indeed, as news becomes more instantaneous and the world becomes more interconnected, travelers are becoming more inured to the latest crisis.

"I think we're a little more sophisticated," says Bob Drumm, president of General Tours, whose itineraries include Bali. "They're not so affected by these outbursts as they have been in the past. There are so many competing issues. I think (people) are a lot more reactive to what's happening in the stock market than to a bombing in Jakarta, where they don't intend to go anyway."

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