As if bloodshed in the hands of the terrorists weren’t enough “shock and awe” for Mumbai hotel guests when hundreds of victims either died or were injured in a terrorist attack that shattered the tourist city late in November, here’s another unexpected blow: Both luxury hotel groups, The Oberoi and The Taj Hotels, said they may not refund deposits from bookings made previous to the incidents. Otherwise, a cancellation charge applies or vouchers will be extended, whether guests like it or not.
Jay Jhingran, senior vice-president sales, The Oberoi Group sent a note to all travel agents saying, “While defining the cancellation policy in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, we have carefully considered international travel advisories. We have also been sensitive to the immediate concern of guests not wishing to travel to India. Cancellations received after 17th December, 2008 will be subject to the cancellation policy outlined in the Oberoi Hotels & Resorts and Trident Hotels rate contract,” said Jhingran.
However, for cancellations received between 27th November, 2008 and 17th December, 2008 (both dates inclusive), the validity of vouchers will be extended till 31st December, 2009, he said. “Deposits that we have received will be credited towards the next stay. The deferred reservations will be at the same rate for the same guest and on the same itinerary,” Jhingran added.
Although they’d promised refunded deposits and cancellation charges for guests with arrival dates at an Oberoi or Trident hotel between 27th November, 2008 and 21st December, 2008, they won’t do the same for cancellations received for arrivals after 21st December 2008. The Oberoi strictly requires an e-mail from the guest for a refund on deposits or cancellation of vouchers sent to the senior vice president Ravish Swarup. The senior VP said cancelled vouchers must be replaced by new vouchers valid till 31st December 2009. “To avoid retention charges the new voucher must be sent to the Oberoi Contact Center by 31st December, 2008. Retention charges will be billed if the guest does not use the new voucher before 31st December, 2009.”
Tour operators who contacted eTN were simply appalled by the decision of the hotel executive. “How can the very same hotels who asked people for compassion and support be the ones penalizing the traveler for deciding not to come to India? This is the most shameful we can present India and puts all of us in very, very bad light with the international community. This is shameful, opportunistic and downright cheap. No other country would ever do this,” said a disappointed tour operator who requested anonymity.
He said he asked a major Egyptian tour operator on what they did after the tourists were attacked in Luxor; such was the closest thing to what tourists have been through in Mumbai. Egypt, in a bid to exercise effective damage control has even given up free nights in most resorts, as they do in any untoward incident including plain overbooking situation. The Indian tour operator compared their case with the recent closure of Bangkok airport, when tourism to Thailand was greatly affected not only in the short term but also well into the future bookings. “Hotels there did not charge any cancellation charges,” he pointed out.
In the tour operators’ letter sent to the The Taj and The Oberoi Groups, they underscored: “There should not be any cancellation/retention charges for the bookings cancelled within the period from 27th November 2008 to 17th December, 2008 (both days inclusive) for the bookings held until 31st March 2009 and the full refund be made on demand.”
In writing, the group stated: “Some of our members have also pointed out that there are cases where they have been in contact with their overseas tour operators and clients (who have already cancelled their India tours) to persuade to visit India on the dates already held or for new ones.” The members would need some extra time to receive their eventual decision.
They asked the hotels to remain fair to their ‘hotel allies and friends, and clients. “Do not levy any cancellation charges if the tour is finally called off,” they requested,” they said. A similar letter from the association of travel agents wrote to the hotels, copying the tourism minister’s office, said they recalled no cancellation fees were imposed in previous terrorism acts. “Of course, no charges have been applied following any of the attacks we went through over the 90’s…Over some incidents, when the attack was too dangerous; some suppliers negotiated the possibility of keeping the deposit to be consumed in the future. But obviously, these were mild issues that could not be compared to the Mumbai attacks.”
They simply could not believe “…a supplier at your current stage would apply a cancellation fee. Rather, they should get together with serious DMCs to agree on what to do to facilitate the return of the business flow.”
According to the Jinghran’s, there are special concessions for group bookings. “Prior to 1st February 2009, there will be no retention charge for reduction in the number of rooms. Complimentary rooms for group leaders, if committed earlier, will be provided irrespective of the group size,” he said in his email to agents.
eTN has attempted to contact Indian tourism minister Ambika Soni several times, but she has not released any official statements and has blatantly disregarded requests for an interview. Dammu Ravi, assistant to minister Ambika Soni said, “Policy is not controlled by us. Rates and charges are doing so depending on their own market inputs. All these issues may have to do with the economic crisis. Numbers are all showing a negative growth, not only around the incident, but the whole month.”
Ravi said there’s no other reason for this, other than the financial meltdown. However, he thinks people are again traveling. Occupancy rates have gone down to 60 percent throughout India. On the security situation, however, he said they’ve already bumped up the number of close circuit cameras at the hotels, with verification of guests being done as cautiously as possible not only at hotels, but also at restaurants and many tourist points.
After numerous requests via phone and email to interview The Taj and The Oberoi, both groups declined..