The rape of a 35-year-old foreigner, holding dual citizenship of France and Switzerland, in Pushkar a week ago (the complaint was filed only on Saturday) is the third such incident involving foreign tourists in the last few weeks, in Rajasthan. And this has seriously rattled the ministry of tourism and the tourism industry in general.
Minister Ambika Soni has called a high-level meeting of state tourism secretaries on January 24 to try and find a solution to this serious law and order problem. Recently, Union Tourism Secretary S. Banerjee wrote to all state governments, reminding them of the ministry’s earlier recommendation to deploy special police at popular tourist sites.
The number of foreign tourists in the country has been going up steadily. So has foreign exchange earnings: it was nearly $6,500 million in 2007, up 25 per cent from the previous year. Those in the industry fear the assaults could change all that.
“The dollar is falling, and it has affected our trade. This is somehow being compensated by greater tourist inflow. But if international tourists get concerned about their safety and begin choosing other Asian destinations like China and Singapore over India, the industry is doomed,” says Tahiruddin Tahir, president, Tour Guides Association at the Taj Mahal in Agra.
On Saturday, an American teacher’s wallet was stolen at the Taj. “Such incidents are being noticed and talked about more. The government needs to make tourists feel secure again,” Tahir says.
Agra has reported a number of cases of rape and sexual assault on tourists since September last year.
Ministry officials say law and order, which includes tourist safety, remains a state subject.
Meanwhile, any action the states have taken on Banerjee’s suggestion seems largely token. In Delhi, the tourism police has just about 80 personnel and 10 PCR vans for tourist assistance. This when government statistics reveal the Capital sees the highest number of tourists in the country (20 lakh in 2006). “Ten vans for a destination like Delhi is just not enough. They need to sensitise the entire police force to make tourists feel comfortable,” says a Delhi tourism department official.
Jane Rankin Reid, an Australian who has traveled extensively in India in the last 10 years, says: “I had to learn to cover my shoulders and not show my knees, which is hard to do in the heat. My bottom got pinched in Delhi a few times but to be honest, my bottom got pinched in Rome and London too.” Reid doesn’t subscribe to the view that it’s the colour of her skin that makes her a target. “I don’t think it is because I’m white. None of the sexual come-ons had racial overtones, just the desperation of men not knowing how to respect women.”
Reid has built this opinion over years of staying in India. For most other tourists, such ugly incidents could shape opinion. Countries like the US, UK, Australia, Canada and France have, in travel advisories, already warned citizens on the law and order situation here.