Travel Weekly’s Jeri Clausing is on an India trip that will take her to Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra and Delhi. Her first dispatch follows.
MUMBAI – The young girl, about 6, shyly approached, pulling along a little sister about half her age.
"Where are you from?" she asked me as I sat on a bench at the Prince of Wales Museum.
"USA," I said.
With a giggle she replied that she had a cousin in Australia, as if all blondes came from one land. Then she offered her little sister’s hand for a shake hello.
It was a fabulous welcome to one the world’s largest cities, but one where I was a surprised to find that Westerners are such a rare spotting for many.
Although the impoverished city has many beggars eager to get one’s attention, there are many residents who are just plain curious to meet or have their picture taken with a Westerner.
We had arrived early that morning for a 10-day trip sponsored by Abercrombie & Kent and Oberoi Hotels & Resorts.
Our first stop was to see the just-completed renovations at the Oberoi Mumbai, one of the two luxury hotels taken under siege during the November 2008 terrorist attacks.
As I was being led to my room along the open hallways that overlook the hotel’s atrium lobby, I flashed back to the security camera footage I had seen on CNN of the terrorists roaming those very same halls. It was an eerie feeling, knowing what had taken had taken place in the building.
Still, I felt safe. And that safe and very welcome feeling was underscored over the next two days as we took in the sites of the very crowded city of nearly 20 million.
"You are as safe or unsafe here as anywhere," our guide said over dinner. Indeed, I had thought the same thing that morning, remembering that in just two weeks I would be attending a conference at the Marriott Marquis, which overlooks the site of a recent failed car bombing attempt in New York’s Times Square.
The Oberoi Mumbai reopened less than a month ago. Like the nearby Taj Majal Palace & Tower, the Oberoi suffered extensive damage from gunfire, grenades, smoke and water.
It was basically gutted and redone in a $40 million renovation that has transformed the 1980s-era luxury business hotel into contemporary property full of sunlight and modern art.
Every room has been redone with modern furnishings, marble and wood floors, larger bathrooms with soaking tubs, the latest technology, fewer rooms and more suites, and the extras international business travelers need — like 24-hour butlers and a 24-hour spa and fitness center.
Security has been enhanced, with iron gates guarding the drive and security guards stationed outside to check incoming vehicles and X-ray all incoming bags. All guests are screened with metal-detecting wands.
And while three dozen employees and guests were killed in the Oberoi’s Tiffin restaurant, which has been renamed Fenix, it is obvious that the hotel employees — and the city — are eager for the fresh start.
The first week the hotel was reopened, locals waited as late midnight for tables in the hotel’s new dining rooms. And while the reopening was marked with a religious ceremony for workers and family rather than a gala, there is an air of pride and excitement about the new beginning.
"It’s exciting for the city," said Oberoi GM Steven Kalczynski. "You can feel the vibrancy returning to the south side of Mumbai."
There is also hope that the reopening of the hotel — along with the planned reopening of the Taj Majal Hotel’s Palace Wing later this year — will signal a new era of tourism in which foreigners are not such a rare sight.
Although official figures indicate tourism is on the rise this year, those in the industry here say it took a huge double-hit from the terrorist attacks that came on top of the global economic slowdown.
Our guide, Sanjay Sethi, estimated tourism dropped as much as 50% last year.