India may have moved yet another rung down the ladder of desirable destinations for female travelers. Reports surfaced on Tuesday of a British woman injured after trying to escape out a window from the unwanted advances of a hotel manager in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal and the nation’s biggest tourist draw. The news came almost immediately after Indian police arrested six men suspected of raping a Swiss tourist, who was camping with her husband during a bike tour when the couple was attacked.
Female tourists — and Indian women — have been on alert since December, when a 23-year-old woman was brutally raped aboard a moving bus in New Delhi and eventually died of her wounds. Security in the capital has been visibly ramped up since then. Barricades are now set up on busy streets at night, manned by police who, with varying degrees of diligence, keep an eye on passing cars. But reports of egregious attacks on Indian and foreign women alike are still ubiquitous in the country’s media outlets, raising the question of when, if ever, these measures and tough new laws aimed at deterring sex crimes are going to start working.
Few are holding their breath. Instead, 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.”
It’s a p.r. nightmare for India’s tourist industry, which sees over 6.5 million visitors a year. 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. (The crime was later featured in a Bollywood film.) And authorities this week have been quick to point out that tourists are subject to crime in any country, and that compared with some other locations, violent crime in India is relatively rare.
It’s understandable for officials to feel piqued that India is being singled out for a few rare incidents that happen in other places too. But the truth is — and this is hardly something limited to the experience of foreign women — India feels different from a lot of other places. Incidences of rape are higher in the U.S. than in India, but the vigilance with which many urban women conduct their day-to-day lives feels more constant and more intense, in no small part because of the unspoken understanding that there may not be anybody there to help you if you get into trouble.
That’s a reality that many Indian women live with. And even though changing that reality has been the topic of thousands of public and private conversations since December, it’s still probably not something most women who visit India fully grasp. At least not until they read about incidents like the ones this week, which bring home the simple and depressing fact that no one is immune to a vacuum of law and order.
It’s hard to say whether these events will rub off on the government’s hypersuccessful Incredible India tourist campaign in any lasting way. But if tourism officials really want to help their industry, they should stop fixating on how statistics get spun and start demanding that their valued customers deserve the right to be well protected, and feel safe and comfortable, just like all the women in this country do.