Apparently driven away by horrific report of a gang rape in New Delhi in December and other widely reported assault cases, women tourists have been abandoning India in droves, with their number plunging by a whopping 35 percent in the first three months of this year.
The survey, by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, also says holidaymakers are opting instead to visit other Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand, which they perceive to be safer. The study surveyed 1,200 tour operators from across the country who said that "concerns about the safety of female travelers" have impacted how foreign travelers viewed India.
Though the "Incredible India" marketing campaign has helped boost visitor arrivals over the past decade to about 6.6 million in 2012 – earning the country $ 17.74 billion in foreign exchange – the number lags far behind destinations such as China and Malaysia.
The rape of the 23-year-old Indian student by six men on a bus in the heart of the capital city sparked national outrage at the country’s abysmal treatment of women. The incident had even shocked a country immune to brutal violence, and brought masses out onto the streets to demand more safety for women and harsher laws to deter the perpetrators of such crimes.
Women Rights groups in India say there is a fundamental lack of respect towards women. One reason is the iniquitous male-female ratio which is a result of female feticide practiced on a large scale. For every 1,000 males, India has about 800 females. In some backward regions, the ratio is as abysmal as 700 to 1,000.
India is also going through a socio-cultural transition. Unlike earlier, young Indian women are no longer willing to accept that their security is not guaranteed in the cities, nor are they willing to accept ossified mindsets which are patriarchal, treat males as superior or require them to stay at home.
However, reality is starkly different. In New Delhi alone, 700 cases of rape were reported last year. Between January and March 2013 alone, 300 cases were reported, some of girls as young as two years. But in most cases, no charges are pressed due to the social stigma attached to the rape victim. The situation is the same even in big cities. Reality really hasn’t kept pace with the Indian women’s increasingly progressive outlook and professional ambitions.
Despite the public outcry, reports of egregious attacks on Indian and foreign women alike are still ubiquitous, raising the question of when, if ever, tough new laws aimed at deterring sex crimes are going to become effective.
Last month, a Swiss tourist was gang raped in central Madhya Pradesh as she and her husband camped in a remote forest. In a second incident, a young British woman said she was forced to jump out the window of her hotel room to avoid a sexual attack in Agra, the city that is home to the Taj Mahal.
“India attempts to enhance its image in the eyes of foreign tourists," D.S. Rawat, secretary general of ASSOCHAM said in a statement. “Instead, the reported attacks have “raised concerns about the safety of female travelers to the country."
Female tourists have been the subjects of high-profile attacks in India before, most notably in 2008 when a 15-year-old British girl was raped and left for dead on a beach in the resort area of Goa.
But the scenario seems to have worsened since then. “Plummeting standards of safety and security," says Suraj Bhan, a Delhi-based tour operator, “are the main reasons for the sharp drop in women tourists. The Delhi gang-rape incident has not just bruised the image of the national capital, but the entire country."
Bhan adds that 80 percent of tour operators have had a number of cancellations in the last three months – a busy tourist season – especially by female visitors from countries such as Canada, the United States, and Australia.
Tourism, says the travel industry, has tumbled in most cities all over the country, not just those where assaults were reported. Fewer tourists flocked to the massive Maha Kumbh Mela festival this year, for instance, reckoned to be the world’s largest spiritual gathering in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
Adding to the travel industry’s woes are advisories issued by various countries underscoring the need for their citizens to take care while traveling in India. Tips are circulating on travel forums, urging female tourists not to travel alone, wear revealing clothing, drink or smoke in public, or be overly friendly.
The U.S. State Department travel advisory to India now includes a long warning to women that urges them to “observe stringent security precautions, including avoiding use of public transport after dark without the company of known and trustworthy companions, restricting evening entertainment to well-known venues, and avoiding isolated areas when alone at any time of day."
Security in the capital has been visibly ramped up since these incidents. Barricades are now set up on busy streets at night, manned by cops who keep an eye on passing cars. But many women are still wary of stepping out, especially at night. “Even though I get invited to a lot of parties, and feel social events are great career lubricants, I avoid late night events as I’m petrified of being attacked," admits Shivani Bhatnagar, 19, a student at Delhi University.
However, government officials are frustrated that India is being singled out for a few sporadic incidents that happen in other places too. Incidents of reported rape, they point out, are higher in the US than in India although that may be due to much more willingness on the part of American women to report rape. Perception, as they say, is everything. And it is this image that’s bottlenecking India’s tourism ministry’s efforts to push tourism as a lead industry and increase tourist arrivals by 12 percent a year up to 2016 to double foreign exchange earnings.
The travel sector, say analysts, has immense potential as a force multiplier for higher revenue generation and a foreign exchange earner in view of the country’s ballooning current account deficit. One in four people in India are employed in the travel-trade industry.
However, there is a contrarian point of view as well. Many foreign nationals visiting or living in India feel the country is as unsafe as any other as sexual abuse is a global phenomenon.
"I don’t feel unsafe here even after the gang-rape incidents. If that was the case, I would have never chosen India as home," Flora Saints Sans, a German national living in Delhi, told a news agency.
Claire, a French national, who is on a visit to India to visit India’s Golden Triangle — Delhi-Agra-Jaipur – opines women are as vulnerable in India as any other society. She gave the recent example of a 21-year-old American woman who was raped by several men in a moving van in Rio De Janeiro last week.
"There have been times when some people have tried to touch me or get too close," she says. "But if you’re vigilant and assertive, then you’re safe as these offenders are easily intimidated by the height and build of western women!"