Despite India’s efforts to punish perpetrators, including a life imprisonment sentence for those who raped a Swiss tourist in 2013, the Swiss government and tour operators continue to regard the country as an unsafe destination for women tourists.
The first sentence under the “crime” section of the Swiss travel advisory to India warns potential travellers that “several rapes and sexual offences have been reported all over India and that foreigners are increasingly among the victims”.
It also recommends that “women should be particularly vigilant” and are “less likely to be bothered if they are accompanied by a man” but should still exercise caution.
The warnings were introduced in June 2013, three months after the shocking gang rape of a Swiss tourist on a biking trip in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The woman and her husband were attacked by a group of men while camping in the countryside. Six of the accused were arrested and sentenced to life in prison.
The stiff penalties for the culprits were due in part to the furore caused by the gang rape of a medical student on a Delhi bus in December 2012. The brutal crime spurred demonstrations and sparked a national debate on attitudes towards women in India. Ever since, cases of rape and sexual harassment - especially those involving foreign tourists - have been widely publicised in both national and international media.
The increase in rape cases is not a recent phenomenon however. Reported incidents of rape have been on the rise in the country since 1971, when rape statistics were first recorded. But 2013 still stands out with over 33,000 rapes, 70,000 rape attempts and 12,000 cases of sexual harassment.
There are no official statistics on the number of foreign nationals raped in India. However, despite the relatively few cases reported, the impact on India’s tourism sector is not negligible.
In spite of action taken by the Indian authorities against those involved in the 2013 Swiss rape case, safety still remains a concern for Swiss tourists.
“Female travellers do raise concerns about safety when planning a trip to India with us,” says Magali Godoy, a travel consultant for the Globetrotters travel agency.
Julie Stauffacher, a travel consultant with Tour Asia also receives queries from clients asking if it is safe for a woman to travel alone in India.
“We ask such tourists to opt for a package that includes a guide and a chauffeur,” she told swissinfo.ch. “We do not offer tours where women travel solo.”
While it is impossible to say for certain that the bad press has had an effect on tourist numbers, there has been a drop in the number of Swiss nationals vacationing in India.
Many Indians feel that the country has been unfairly singled out as a place that is dangerous for women. Afshan Masarrat, an Indian student in Lucerne, says she has only had positive feedback from those who had been to India.
“I have met a few Swiss people who have been to India and they were really happy with their trip,” she told swissinfo.ch.
“We cannot deny there have been some incidents,” says Anupam Jain, an Indian tourist visiting Lucerne. “Only highlighting those incidents doesn't feel right.”
But few deny that there are dangers to those who are unaware of ground realities.
“India is one of the safest destinations in the world, provided tourists take basic precautions,” Pravir Chakravorty, assistant director of India Tourism for Switzerland, told swissinfo.ch.
In Lucerne for the World Tourism Forum, he advises Swiss tourists to book their Indian itinerary through tour operators approved by the ministry of tourism to minimise any risk. A travel advisoryexternal link for women on the India Tourism website also counsels against straying off the beaten path:
“International visitors need to exercise caution, just as local residents do, while travelling through or staying at isolated places, to guard against becoming victims of undesirable elements.”
Radhika Banhatti, an Indian holidaymaker in Lucerne agrees that some parts of the country pose a greater risk to women travellers than others.
“It is not like India as a whole is an unsafe country, some areas are unsafe,” she says. “There are places where even I wouldn't venture at night.”
According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, Madhya Pradesh was the state with the highest number of reported cases of rape in the last year on record: 2013.
While rapes in urban areas get more media coverage, cities made up only around 14% (4,780 out of 33,764 cases) of all reported rape cases in India in 2013. Thus it is not prudent for tourists to let down their guard in rural areas of the country. Among cities, Delhi is by far the one with the highest incidents of rapes (1452 cases) with Mumbai coming a distant second (394 cases).
Chakravorty points out that the Indian authorities have dealt with cases involving sexual harassment of foreign tourists swiftly and firmly. In fact, the India Tourism travel advisory for women highlights the Swiss case as an example of how the government is taking tourist safety seriously:
“In the incident in Madhya Pradesh, which occurred in March, 2013, the accused were tried in a Fast Track Court and sentenced to life imprisonment in July, 2013, i.e. within four months.”
Security measures for tourists
So far, 13 out of the 29 Indian states have a tourist police in some form or the other. The Indian government is encouraging all states to set up their own tourist police force. The tourism ministry has also set up a 24hr toll-free emergency helpline (1800-11-1331) for tourists in trouble.
Other measures in the pipeline include a “welcome card” for foreign tourists with a list of do’s and don’ts and GPS devices to keep tabs on taxis ferrying tourists.