India's Tourism Problem is Directly Related to India's Women Problem

After initial fears following recent high-profile attacks on women in India that the all-important tourism sector of India's economy would be harmed, the worst fears seem to be coming true. A recent New York Times article attributes these sharp declines in tourism numbers to India's falling status in the list of desirable travel destinations for female travelers.

The result of a very real gender problem, the fear remains that this international reaction will only harm India's women further. A threatened tourism sector could not only impair goals for economic stability that can be so crucial to women's education and empowerment, but also risks harming the important benefits that can stem from a healthy and flourishing system of cultural exchange produced by tourism.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India reports an overall 35% drop in female tourism in the first three months of this year as compared with the same period last year. As reports of gender violence have gained increased attention over the past year, with horrific stories involving victimized local women, children, aid workers, and tourists, it is no surprise that foreign women have been wary of travel to the country in recent months.

However, fear of a sudden jump in danger for tourists may be misleading. While there is some indication that instances of rape are on the rise, some observers have been quick to note that the increased attention, or perhaps proportion of reported crimes, may be more the cause of increased fear rather than an equivalent rise in danger for women. Today, one case of rape is reported in the country every twenty minutes. However, some cite the UN Office on Drugs and Crime's 2010's report that 1.8 incidents of reported rape in India were found per 100,000 people that year as compared with a whopping 27.3 corresponding figure of reported cases in the U.S. to say instances of sexual violence in India can be less common than instances in some of the most highly developed, well-traveled countries.

The reality is, however, that any such statistics can be incredibly misleading and even impossible to authoritatively compare. Social and institutional factors appear to suppress the number of reported cases in India in a significant degree. Additionally, travelers may benefit from seeking out the more difficult to find, but more informative, regional data as dangers of sexual violence in India can be highly impacted by the specific destination in mind. Risks appear to be heavily concentrated in certain cities such as Delhi (see this map).

Wherever the hard statistics may stand, it remains clear that horrific reports of sexual violence in the country have rightly faced heightened international attention and outcry. At its best, this rising international fear is helping bring attention to underlying social factors contributing to the violence, and, at its worst, new information is leaving female tourists and aid workers fearful to spend time in India and harming goals for gender and development in the country.

Tourism accounts for around 6% of India's GDP, maintaining around 20 million jobs employing around 10% of the country's employment. New York Times reporters Neha Thirani Bagri and Heather Timmons found, however, that a much larger figure, closer than 60-70 million Indians, they claim, make their living off of foreigners in an "unorganized" form of economic exchange such as selling photographs on the street.

The fear remains, then, that the economic hit caused by falling tourism numbers will threaten broader goals for economic progress and gender equality, issues which, the evidence suggests, are considered more and more inextricably linked. If recent cases of sexual violence are in turn harming overall economic stability, Indian women may be the ones to suffer the biggest loss. Not only is tourism an obvious economic factor, it is also argued that tourism can contribute valuable instances of cross-cultural exchange, which can encourage new ideas to spread within developing countries, and can increase awareness and sensitivity to local issues within the developed world. 

The prognosis is not all bad. The threat of a harmed tourism sector may, overall, be an added push Indian officials need to take the issue of increased cases of high-profile sexual violence seriously. In April, India's tourism ministry asked state governments to increase police forces for tourist destinations, and has reported it is working to set up a multilingual toll-free phone line for women to report problems they may face. Whether motivated by economic factors, international political pressure, or a real desire for justice, any increased domestic political attention aiming to fix the very real problem of gender violence in India is largely — of course — beneficial.

However, women in India deserve a comprehensive solution where they can enjoy greater access to education, resources, and justice. As international female travelers face increased fear of traveling to the country, they should feel increased impetus to more carefully monitor the realities women in India face every day, and work to promote a mutually beneficial solution in which flourishing tourist activity can safely contribute to a thriving Indian society safe for foreign and domestic women alike.