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After Mumbai, hotels are rethinking security from top to bottom. Maria Shollenbarger reports on how they’re protecting guests. Plus: The latest on what’s being done in airports and on cruise ships, subways, and trains, and T+L’s tips for a safer trip.
New Trends in Travel Security
The use of closed-circuit television (CCTV), for years a mainstay in hotels in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Middle East, and the Philippines, is on the rise. McIndoe predicts the spread of intelligent video surveillance to properties in regions with moderate risk levels, such as Dubai, within months. It’s also possible that the elaborate surveillance systems, including face-recognition software, now used to prevent robberies in Las Vegas hotels and casinos, could be disseminated to other American properties. Several experts, however, question the efficacy (and cost) of such systems and endorse human surveillance instead. Indeed, in recent years, there’s been a notable increase in hotels’ use of private security—a trend that will surely continue. “In some regions, it’ll be guards conspicuously uniformed, and armed, if that’s within the local law,” says John Seddon, operations manager for travel-security services at Control Risks, a London-based business-risk consultancy. “In the West, say the United Kingdom or the United States, it’ll have more of a customer-service packaging, but chances are it’ll fulfill, at least in part, the same role”—i.e., some of those smiling bellhops greeting you at the door might actually be security personnel, hired to keep an eye on entrances and visitors.
2008 was the year hotel security took center stage. On November 26 between 9 and 11 p.m., reported members of the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba stormed three hotels in Mumbai—the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, the Oberoi, and the Trident, Nariman Point—armed with machine guns, rifles, and grenades. In three days, more than 170 people were killed. This wasn’t the only attack directed at high-end hotels: in January 2008, six people were killed at the Serena Hotel in Kabul, allegedly by Taliban fighters; and in September, a car bomb at the entrance to the Marriott in Islamabad claimed 52 lives. But Mumbai’s events were deeply shocking, and not simply for their scale. A certain degree of travel-at-your-own-risk is implicit in a destination like Kabul and, to a growing extent, Pakistan. But Mumbai?And the Taj Mahal?It’s a landmark, one of the most venerated—and thus, the received wisdom would have it, secure—hotels in India.
As the world’s political and cultural terrain alters, rapidly and sometimes alarmingly, the hotel industry is being confronted with new paradigms of risk. “The kind of attack we saw in Mumbai has all the earmarks of what a terrorist wants: it’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s sensational,” says Bruce McIndoe, president of iJET Intelligent Risk Systems, an Annapolis-based global-intelligence and risk-management consultancy that counts a handful of luxury hotel companies among its clients. McIndoe warns that we are likely to see more attempts at such attacks, at least regionally in South and Central Asia. Moreover, he says, “This incident will force the whole hotel industry to change its practices.”
The vulnerability of hotels lies in the very welcome they extend to guests through their rooms and public spaces. Steven Brill, founder of Clear, which provides passenger-prescreening technology for airports, notes that Mumbai’s events upped the ante on what had been one of the industry’s main challenges since 9/11: “Luxury hotels have two primary mandates, which exist at total cross-purposes: they want to put guests at ease, but they also need to implement safety and security measures that may make them uneasy.” Simon Cooper, president and COO of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, observes that “while it can be reassuring to see obvious signs of security precautions, it is a delicate balancing act to not make [guests] overly anxious about threat levels.”
So how exactly are the top hotels addressing safety without turning themselves into fortresses?“We don’t discuss these details, so as not to compromise them,” says Jim Fitzgibbon, president of worldwide hotel operations at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts—a policy echoed by Cooper and other heads of major hotel companies and private hotels. But with both leisure travelers and corporate-travel bookers demanding answers in exchange for their business, safety protocols are under enormous scrutiny. And conversations with risk-assessment experts, hospitality insurers, and security firms reveal that self-auditing, and soul-searching, are at high levels throughout the industry—even at properties in major Western cities and other regions heretofore not seen as high-risk. Most hotels are focused on enhancing security in several key areas.
Airlines and Airports
After years of tightening security through stricter carry-on policies and random searches, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is gradually launching the most extensive passenger prescreening system to date, throughout 2009. Under the Secure Flight program, domestic travelers have to disclose personal data, including date of birth and gender, when booking flights. And in a dramatic shift, the TSA—instead of the individual airlines—will monitor this data to coordinate comparisons with the agency’s No Fly List. Providing another safety layer at terminals across the country, the government is installing high-tech video cameras that use “passive millimeter wave technology” to read illumination levels of the human body. The device captures images of a traveler’s different parts (a leg, say, or a chest). When the photos are compared, higher illumination levels in one part of the body can signal the presence of suspicious materials such as explosives.
Since last November’s pirate attack on an Oceania cruise ship in the Gulf of Aden (GOA), cruising security has been in the spotlight. Though the chance of an attack is small, cruise lines have been taking measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, for example, equipped its vessels with short-range radar, which can pick up the presence of small fishing boats (commonly used by pirates). Several companies have also removed the GOA route—which runs between Somalia and Yemen and is the only stretch of water where cruise ships have been under attack—from their itineraries. In the meantime, the United Nations recently called for armed boats to police GOA waters and provide emergency relief in case of an assault. Despite the headline-grabbing piracy, the biggest priority for cruise lines remains port safety: making sure that unauthorized travelers and baggage don’t get onto a ship. After 9/11, the International Maritime Organization instituted stricter regulations, requiring that all cargo be x-rayed and that cruises provide passengers with identification cards. So far, the efforts have proved extremely effective at keeping unauthorized people and cargo off the ships.
Trains and Subways
Despite its lack of uniform standards, Europe is at the vanguard of rail security, having invested $21 million in safety research in 2007. Spain’s busiest rail lines, as well as Eurostar’s Brussels, London, and Paris routes, have airport-style passenger screening with X-ray machines, metal detectors, and passport control. In London, British Transport Police in rail stations and the tube have increased by 36 percent since 2003. And surveillance cameras will increase by more than 40 percent by 2012. The United States has been slower to respond on the technology front, but passenger searches are on the rise. Last fall, Amtrak boosted its police presence by deploying teams to check commuters and luggage on the nation’s busiest platforms. Undercover officers are also patrolling stations, dressed as businessmen or homeless people. As in Europe, Asian standards vary from country to country. In Bangkok, subway officials manually check bags and have replaced trash cans with clear plastic containers. Tokyo will increase the number of cameras in its subway stations to 5,700 by 2011. More-dramatic measures are taking place in Beijing, which is Asia’s first city to use X-ray machines throughout its 125-mile subway network.
No matter where you travel, there are ways you can protect yourself. Here, advice from the experts.
- Be informed. Read up on the social and political situation in the regions you are traveling through. Check the State Department’s website (travel.state.gov) for country-specific reports and advice, including alerts and advisories. The British Foreign & Commonwealth Office also maintains a detailed report of travel warnings, listed by country on its website (fco.gov.uk).
- Stay connected. Bring a cell phone or PDA that works overseas, or buy a prepaid phone on the GSM network when you arrive. And make sure the device remains adequately charged.
- Know who to contact. Find out the number of the local consulate at your destination (see usembassy.gov). In a crisis, you can also call the State Department’s Overseas Citizens Service (202/501-4444).
- Register your travel plans. Send your itinerary and contact details to the U.S. State Department, if you’re heading to a high-risk region. This way you can be reached in case of emergency. Do it online (travel.state.gov) and you’ll receive travel warnings by e-mail as well.
- Buy travel insurance. Consider plans that include security/repatriation services. Ask your insurance company if it provides evacuation plans, or sign up for MedjetAssist (medjet.com), a private membership company that arranges emergency jet transportation.
- Vet your hotel. Choose a property with good security features and access control, such as a well-staffed lobby and electronic room locks (which make it less likely that someone else will have a copy of your key).
- Keep a low profile. Tourists are targets because they look out of place, says Robert Siciliano, a Boston-based security consultant and author of The Safety Minute. Avoid dressing in a flashy manner and don’t wear valuables.