MUMBAI, December 21 – Two luxury hotels that were stormed by Islamist militants re-opened amid tight security in Mumbai Sunday, less than a month after devastating attacks that rocked India’s financial and entertainment hub.,
The Trident and Taj Mahal hotels received their first guests since the carnage, with staff praised for their dedication and resilience as others called for defiance in the face of extremism.
Ratan Tata, the head of the Tata Group conglomerate that owns the Taj, dedicating the relaunch to all those who lost their lives, said the swift reopening of the hotel’s modern Tower wing was the start of a "new era".
"I believe that the opening of this hotel will send a message that we can come alive again in a record period of time and play a role and continue to be part of this great city," he told reporters.
The 105-year-old Palace wing of the Taj remains closed but Tata said its reopening "would send an even stronger message, not just for the Taj but for the community of Mumbai that we can be hurt but we cannot be knocked down".
Both hotels were officially reopened after commemoration services, where prayers were said by religious leaders for the 163 civilians and security personnel who died and the nearly 300 others who were injured.
Some 22 guests and 10 staff were killed at the Trident, while 31 people died at the iconic red-domed Taj, including 12 employees.
The names of all those who died at the Taj will be inscribed at the base of a "Tree of Life" that was unveiled during a private reception for Mumbai’s elite Sunday afternoon, Tata said.
Staff at both hotels have won high praise for their work during and after the attacks.
R.K. Krishna Kumar, vice-chairman of the Indian Hotels Company that runs the Taj, described employees as "heroes", while Trident Hotel’s president Rattan Keswani said he felt "deep pride" in all his staff.
Businessman Deepak Datta held his room swipe card aloft as he told reporters he had been determined to be the first to check in to the Taj — despite having been caught up in the carnage there last month.
He said after being rescued from the hotel he had vowed to go back, and had even requested the same room, where his luggage — abandoned during the attacks — was waiting for him.
"I’m doing this to stand up to terrorism," he said.
"I saw a lot of the people who lost their lives; a lot of bodies.
"Before I was rescued I had several explosions under my feet, but that didn’t stop me from fulfilling my promise that I would be the first guest to check back in."
Middle-aged Datta, who told reporters he now lives on the west coast of the United States, said being back at the scene of so much violence was disorientating.
"Now it’s hitting me a little," he said when asked how he felt. "But I’m feeling more for the people who lost their lives, rather than trauma for myself."
Among the first guests at the Trident were Canadian Rick McElrea and his family, who arrived for breakfast.
"It’s a statement to terrorists that this does not close down business. This does not close down hotels," said McElrea, who lives in Mumbai but is originally from the Canadian capital Ottawa.
"I don’t feel any fear. I feel hope," he said. "The terrorists failed and Mumbaikars won."
The attacks — by 10 heavily-armed gunmen allegedly belonging to the banned Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba group — led to cancellations at hotels across India.
About 100 of the Trident’s 550 rooms were booked Sunday night while the Taj, where 278 rooms were available, was 65 percent full. Both hotels reported healthy reservations for their restaurants.
Security was tight, with armed guards and barricades at both hotels. Roads around the Taj have been sealed since the shooting stopped on November 29, while access to the Trident was severely restricted.
Luggage scanners and metal detectors have been placed at entrances, while guests had their identification checked and were frisked.
Tata has consulted "combat experts" to improve security, which will include plain-clothed specialists operating inside the hotel, the Taj’s Kumar said, describing extremism as "an invisible form of war."
"We will not be restrained by budgetary constraints to spend towards internal security," he added.
Tata has said that the Taj management was warned it was a possible target, but increased security measures were eased shortly before the attacks.
Both he and Keswani have said that no business could completely proof itself against such a brazen attack.
The Trident suffered up to 100,000 dollars’ damage while the repair bill for the adjoining Oberoi hotel, which is yet to reopen, could reach 10 million dollars. No figures were available for the Taj.