Saturday, July 18, 2009

Innocents, Again

The Marriott Corp. thought it was winding up a bad week on Thursday when the company reported that its quarterly earnings fell 76 percent from the second quarter last year - a sign that travelers continue to wait out the Great Recession by staying home. Then, on Friday, the news got a whole lot worse: Twin bombings at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jarkarta, Indonesia, killed eight people and injured dozens more.

Both properties are run by Washington, D.C.-based Marriott, which operates under a number of brands, including Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, Residence Inn and Courtyard.

The Jakarta hotel bombings were the latest travel-related outrage perpetrated by terrorists and the first major attack since last November's seige of two hotels and a railway station in Mumbai, India. This continues a trend in which innocent people - some of them tourists - are deliberately targeted by heartless killers intent on proving a political point.

Travelers have been targeted before, of course - often in states with Islamic military insurgencies such as Indonesia, the Philippines and Egypt - and the challenge of preventing more such attacks frustrates the leaders of the hospitality industry, who, understandably, don't want to weigh down their industry by adopting a fortress mentality.

But something must be done. Terror operatives - most of them hard-line Islamicists who have intensely politicized once of the world's major religions and clearly believe the end of establishing an Islamic caliphate justifies any means of getting it - have attacked tourists at Luxor, Egypt; Bali, Indonesia (twice); Mumbai (several times) and elsewhere. The Jakarta J.W. Marriott has been attacked twice now; a truck bomb killed 12 people at the hotel in 2003.

Those of us who travel in unsettled parts of the world have seen tough anti-terror measures. I have passed through metal-detectors at the entrance to hotels in Cairo and Istanbul and seen armed men with "Tourist Police'' stenciled on the backs of their shirts patroling tourist sites in Jordan. Clearly, however, resurgent and adaptive militants continue to be a threat.

What do do? We may have to embrace security measures once considered draconian, and image be damned, to protect the lives of innocents. Erecting standard metal detectors and searching cars appears to no longer be good enough.

Investigators say a branch of Indonesia's once nearly-obliterated Jemaah Islamiyah terror group may be behind the latest attacks, which were apparently carried out by suicide bombers who booked themselves into the hotels as guests and assembled the parts for bombs inside their rooms. Why those parts weren't flagged by hotel security is unclear.

Chris Brummitt, a reporter who heads the Associated Press' Pakistan bureau and has covered terror groups for some years, wrote in an AP dispatch Friday that "Expensive X-ray machines that detect explosives and intrusive searches of guest luggage may be the only way to stop a repeat attack, but they come at a price: Making properties that are supposed to be welcoming to weary travelers feel like prisons.''

Brummitt quotes terror specialist Paul Wilkinson, director of the Center of the Study of Terrorsm and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, as saying: "The authorities are not opposed to this, because they worry about the effect of the attacks. But hotel authorities and the tourist industry are a bit reluctant because they don't want the hotels to look like bunkers. But I think the more attacks we have of this kind, the more hotels will have to think about improving the protection.''

I think so, too. The traditional response of the travel industry and various and sundry tourist boards - deploring the violence and issuing a press release saying the trouble is over and everything is fine, come on by - is not enough. None of us would like the stepped-up security measures that may be be needed, but all of us would be better-protected should they be put into place. Being attacked by terrorists can ruin your whole holiday.

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