PALM DESERT, CALIF. -- It was a difficult week in Asia.
Tour operators and travel agents with clients in the region worked overtime to ensure that their clients were safe and that their travel plans could proceed. They scrambled to calm clients' fears following terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, and to untangle the logistical challenges after protesters shut down two major Thailand airports for more than a week.
A recurring question here at the United States Tour Operators Association's Annual Conference and Marketplace was what impact the attacks would have on travel and how long it would take for regional tourism to recover.
"The guests that are on tour [in India], we're calling them more frequently than we normally do. They're obviously unnerved," said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of the Stuart, Fla.-based operator Big Five Tours and Expeditions. Big Five had about 60 guests throughout India at the time of the Mumbai attacks, though none were in Mumbai itself.
On Nov. 26, a group of 10 terrorists armed with grenades and assault rifles attacked several soft targets in the city, including the Oberoi and the Taj Mahal Palace hotels and the Victoria Terminus train station. The attacks killed at least 172 people; more than 20 were foreigners, including at least six Americans.
Mumbai is now cleaning up the rubble, and the two hotels damaged in the attacks are assessing the damage and trying to determine when they might be able to reopen.
The industry, meanwhile, is struggling to evaluate the impact the attacks could have on tourism to India.
Complicating the situation was a warning issued by the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi on Dec. 3 advising travelers that the Indian government was ordering heightened security measures after intercepting information suggesting that airports were being targeted for attacks from Dec. 4 through Dec. 6.
Even so, airports in India remained open as of late last week.
Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is more an entry and exit point for tourists than a destination. Many tour operators (Collette Vacations, for example), do not include Mumbai in their India itineraries.
Despite the chaos that ensued during and immediately after the attacks, Indian tourism officials were sounding a note of optimism last week.
"People are postponing, but they are not canceling," said Kalyan Sangupta, assistant director of India's tourism office in New York. Tourism to India, Sangupta predicted, "will bounce back within one to three months."
That view was echoed across the industry, with numerous tour operators voicing confidence that fears about traveling to India would pass.
But according to Big Five's Sanghrajka, it could be awhile before it does.
"With future bookings, right now, we have a lot of people who are worried, even if they're not going to Mumbai," Sanghrajka said. "We're allowing people to postpone the trip or choose a different destination, Central or South America. They're not taking India off their list; what they are doing is putting it off."
Thailand airport sieges
The logistical complications caused by protesters who took over Bangkok's two airports for more than a week starting on Nov. 25 might in some ways be tougher to untangle than the cleanup of Mumbai.
The sieges by antigovernment protesters were lifted Dec. 2, a day after a court ousted Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat. But by then the demonstrations had taken a heavy toll on tourism: More than 300,000 travelers had been stranded in Bangkok, with countless others unable to enter.
"We do have passengers all over Southeast Asia that have been affected and inconvenienced by the Bangkok airport closure," said Marilyn Downing Staff, founder and president of Asia Transpacific Journeys, who described a "very intense" week of creatively juggling itineraries, moving travelers within the region and getting people home "more or less on schedule."
According to Dennis Tan, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent Thailand, domestic flights and some international flights began operating as of last week.
"I understand it will always be a tough sell to convince people to come visit, especially after what happened," Tan wrote in a memo to agents last week. "But those of you who have experienced the Thai culture on a previous visit will agree that Bangkok, and Thailand as a whole, are unique."
Asia Transpacific Journeys' Downing Staff remained confident about the region.
"I am happy to report that all looks way more optimistic in the Asia travel arena than the current press may indicate," she said. The resounding sentiment in the industry was that this, too, shall pass.