NEW DELHI - In the wake of recent sexual assaults on female tourists in India, travel advisories from several countries have cautioned visitors to take care while visiting. That has raised worries in India about the possible impact on tourism.
India’s latest advertising campaign to woo tourists shows Patricia Malone, co-star of the film The Mentalist, traveling the length and breadth of the country alone. It is meant to showcase India as a safe destination.
But that image has taken a beating in the wake of recent widely publicized assaults on foreign tourists. A week ago, March 15, a Swiss tourist was gang raped while on a cycling holiday with her husband in the central Madhya Pradesh state. Her husband was tied to a tree.
In another incident, a British woman jumped off the balcony of her second floor hotel room to escape a man she says tried to force his way into her room. It happened in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, the nation’s biggest tourist draw.
The incidents have heightened a sense of unease among some female foreign tourists.
Susan Gass from the United States is staying to visit tourist sites in India after completing a two-week study program. She says she is not sure she has anything to fear, but will be cautious.
"I will be careful," she said. "My partner did give me a whistle before I came because he had some concerns. I have tried actually not to follow too much of the media because I will be traveling on my own. I don't want to be scared the whole time I am traveling."
Sexual assaults against women have gotten more attention since the brutal gang rape of a young Indian woman in New Delhi in December made international headlines.
The director of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, Gour Kanjilal, says the attacks on foreign tourists have fueled anxiety among overseas visitors.
"People are asking from overseas, they have an apprehension, how safe they will be," said Kanjilal. "Those who want to come in future may think twice, they many postpone their visit or they may look for another destination, so we have to be very proactive to revive our image as safe tourist destination."
Britain’s latest travel advisory on India warns that foreign women often receive unwanted attention and are at risk. The United States advisory asks women to observe stringent security precautions, avoid isolated areas when alone or traveling alone in hired taxis. Switzerland urges visitors to India to travel with large groups and with guides.
Indian officials say it is not fair to portray India as unsafe because of a few isolated incidents. They point out that tourists can be targeted anywhere and security has been beefed up in New Delhi and other tourist destinations.
Many visitors agree. Like Henriette Monegar from France, who says she has never felt threatened.
"The other day I caught the metro alone at 11 o'clock in the evening and I just felt uncomfortable because I was the only woman in the metro, but not because there was any threatening situation," she said.
But tourism professionals fear perception is as important as reality. They are urging the government to open a 24-hour helpline for foreign tourists where they can be assisted in any language, as well as take other steps to boost confidence.