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Assaults on women in India hit tourism

Agencies report that travellers are cancelling trips in droves, as travel advice from a host of countries warns visitors to take care. Suryatapa Bhattacharya reports from New Delhi

NEW DELHI // Travel advice from a host of countries is stressing the need for visitors to take care when visiting India, particularly in light of recent sexual assaults against female tourists.

Yesterday, a British woman jumped off the balcony of her second-floor hotel room in Agra to escape a man who she said tried to force his way into her room at 4am offering a massage. The woman was injured after landing on a balcony below and police said the owner of the hotel has been arrested.

On Friday, a group of men attacked a 39-year-old Swiss tourist and her husband camping in a forest in Madhya Pradesh. The woman was gang raped in front of her husband, who was tied to a tree. The men also stole the couple's money, laptop and mobile phone. Six men were arrested and four were charged with rape on Monday.

The two widely reported attacks have renewed attention on India's problem of sexual violence against women.

An updated advisory from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: "Women travellers often receive unwanted attention in the form of verbal and physical harassment by individuals or groups of men." The recent attacks "against female visitors in tourist areas and cities show that foreign women are at risk".

The US State Department website warned female travellers to "avoid travelling alone in hired taxis, especially at night" and an advisory from the Swiss foreign ministry urged men and women visiting India to travel in large groups and with guides.

The tourism ministry's ubiquitous Incredible India marketing campaign may have helped raise the number of foreign visitors over the past decade to around 6.3 million a year, but that push is now hampered by a growing sense that the country is simply not a safe destination, particularly for women.

Indian officials say there is no need for alarm, pointing out that foreigners are victims of crime the world over and the vast majority of visitors experience no safety problems.

But Indian travel agents are worried about the effect on the tourism industry.

Gour Kanjilal, the executive director of the Indian Association of Tour Operators (IATO), said he has been fielding calls from travel agencies complaining about the growing number of cancellations as well as questions from tourists about travel and safety in India.

"What they [tourists] bring in has multiple ripples, from the grassroots level to the finest hotel. It creates jobs in distant areas where no other industry can reach," said Mr Kanjilal. "The government is aware of how serious this situation is and what an effect it can have on the economy.

"These things are giving a lot of image problems to our country. Things are going from bad to worse," he said.

The central state of Madhya Pradesh is a recent addition to the tourism circuit in North India. It attracted 650,000 foreign visitors last year, a figure set to increase by 20 per cent this year, according to Ilyas Khan, who runs Travel Assistance in Khajuraho, a Unesco world heritage site.

"These incidents are shocking news," said Mr Khan. "Now [tourists] will be scared to come here and there is little we can do to change their minds when things like this happen."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae

* with additional reporting from the Associated Press

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