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India's recent spate of sexual violence is driving tourists to other destinations

“More stability means better access to more treasures,” the New York Times claimed, when it featured Sri Lanka as a holiday destination in its recently released list of 52 Places To Go To in 2015. India, once a must-visit-at-least-once-in-a-lifetime country, does not feature on that list at all.

One reason why India’s attractions are fading is the recent spate of rapes of women tourists in the country, of which the alleged kidnap and gang rape of a Japanese tourist is just the latest example. India is no longer the safe option.

Stories on sexual violence in India have been flowing in almost constantly since December 2012, when a young student was brutally gang raped in New Delhi. The case sparked mass protests all over the country and received unprecedented coverage in world media, making sexual violence in India a global issue.

It was only a few months later that an American student’s account of experiencing sexual violence in India went viral. Entitled “India: the story you never wanted to hear”, RoseChasm’s account recollects “men filming our every move”, “clawing at our breasts and groin”. Several other cases – Involving a Danish woman, a British woman and a Swiss couple – have made headlines too.

It is then not surprising that where there would previously be information about preventing malaria and wearing loose linen clothes, there are now warnings about protecting yourself from sexual violence. The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises women to avoid isolated areas at any time of the day and not to travel alone on public transport. The USA and Canada, among several other countries, have similar travel advisories on relevant websites.

This caution can be deterring. Hannah, a 26 year old PhD student in York, says, “I’d like to go to India sometime in the future, but I admit that those stories do put me off, certainly from travelling alone.” While aware that the threat of sexual violence in India may have been magnified by the media, Hannah adds, “I was harassed a lot while doing research in Israel/Palestine and can’t be bothered to put up with that on my holidays, when I know that I can feel safe and have fun in other interesting places.”

And other parts of South Asia are emerging as tourism destinations. Sri Lanka, in particular, seems increasingly attractive, mostly because of the greater stability that has followed the end of its 30-year anti-separatist war. Sri Lanka’s Ministry for Economic Development now believes that their “tourism industry can look forward to the future with confidence”. This confidence is not unfounded – in 2012, the industry’s income grew by 22.1 per cent as compared to the previous year.

India’s income from tourism, on the other hand, has been declining: in particular, the number of women tourists visiting the country has gone down by 35 per cent since the 2012 gang rape, reducing the overall flow of tourists to India by a quarter. This flies in the face of the Indian government’s decade-long marketing campaign, “Incredible India”, to sell the country to a global audience.

This is a loss that India cannot afford. According to the World Tourism Organisation, international tourism reached a peak in 2012 with over 1bn international tourists worldwide. The industry is one of the world’s largest economic sectors, accounting for 9 per cent of global GDP and up to 8 per cent of the total exports of the world’s Least Developed Countries. 

Perhaps all is not lost. Lara, a 28 year old lawyer living in London, has been to India twice and says she’d like to go again.

She wouldn’t want to visit big tourist cities like Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, however, because that’s where she felt “uncomfortable as a woman traveller”. During her last trip, she found herself in situations which made her feel unsafe, including a train journey in which she was constantly watched by five men sitting opposite her. “This was about a week after the gang rape incident so you can imagine the thoughts that were going through my head.”

It’s not good news when a country’s main tourist attractions are considered unsafe for travellers. If India wants to retain and increase its income from tourism, it needs to make major and rapid changes in the way it organises and sells tourism – and ensure safety for women who live in and travel to the country.
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