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High-profile rapes threaten India tourism business, many operators report slump

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MUMBAI, India - A fatal gang rape in New Delhi didn't deter Germans Carolina De Paolo and Canan Wahner from travelling to India for a six-week tour. The attack was awful, but there is crime everywhere, they figured, and they'd take precautions.

Then a man sidled up to Wahner on a train to Goa and ran his hand up her leg a few weeks into the trip. On another train, a different man grabbed De Paolo's breasts from behind.

"I wanted to scream and do something, but he ran away," De Paolo said. She never reported the crime, deciding there would be no point. The two women, both 22, say there were times they didn't feel safe, but they insist they still would come to India again.

That separates them from many tourists, who are choosing not to come at all.

Violence against women, and the huge publicity generated by recent attacks here, is threatening India's $17.7 billion tourism industry. A new study shows tourism has plunged, especially among women, since a 23-year-old Indian student was raped on a New Delhi bus and later died from her injuries — a case that garnered worldwide publicity. The government denies any fall off in tourism.

Concerns only grew after the reported gang rape of a Swiss woman in central India last month and after a British woman jumped out of her hotel room window fearing the manager was trying to break into her room to sexually assault her. That incident happened in Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, one of India's chief tourist attractions.

Merchants say India is being unfairly singled out, but perception is everything in the tourist business. And businesses catering to tourists are already suffering.

Foreign tourist arrivals have dropped 25 per cent since the December gang rape in New Delhi, and the number of female travellers fell by 35 per cent, according to the study by the New Delhi-based Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The study, which surveyed 1,200 tour operators across the country, indicated that "concerns about the safety of female travellers" have changed tourists' plans. Instead, they are going to countries perceived to be safer, including Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Tourism Minister K. Chiranjeevi disputed the survey Wednesday, saying that foreign tourist arrivals into India in January and February grew by 2.1 per cent.

But Mehraj Shora says it is hard to see that as business dries up in his Mumbai carpet shop.

"Every day it's getting worse," Shora laments. "Tourists are coming, but not like before."

In good times, Shora used to sell two or three Kashmiri carpets a day to foreign visitors at prices starting at $300. Now, days might go by without a single rug sold. He estimates sales are down 50 per cent and says the rape cases have added to the strain of a stalling economy.

He blames the international media for hyping recent cases when crimes occur in any country. "Actually, India is quite safe. In some ways it's safer than other places."

Still, just as the New Delhi gang rape sparked a national outcry over the mistreatment of women, the attacks on female tourists have highlighted what has long been known: Women travelling in India, especially alone, frequently face unwanted advances from men.

Crimes against female tourists happen everywhere. Thailand has, for instance, seen at least three rapes of foreign tourists this year. In the Philippines, a local man was arrested in January on charges of raping a 23-year-old British woman on the resort island of Boracay. Over the weekend in Brazil, an American woman was gang raped and beaten aboard a public minibus she had boarded in Rio de Janeiro. Still, in India it is particularly easy to find stories from foreign women who, like some Indian women, have been harassed, followed or fondled.

Italian model Ginevra Leggeri, 21, says she had no warning when a man groped her from behind while she was walking with a friend in Mumbai, where she came to work a few months ago.

"I was completely covered and we were just walking, and this man touched me, and I started screaming and I slapped him," she said.

Her friend and co-worker Amy Manson, 19, quickly pointed out that a pair of Indian men on a passing motorbike saw the incident and stopped to confront the attacker.

"An Indian guy grabbed her, but then two other Indian guys came and helped us," Manson said. "So it's like a 50-50 situation."

But she hesitates when asked if she would recommend a friend visit, and she agrees India's tourist business will be damaged if it doesn't take action to protect women. Last month, the government passed new, more stringent, laws against sexual violence.

"It's not just the girl in Delhi ... this has been happening for years and years and years," Manson said. "It's just coming out now, which is good, because maybe things will change."

Imran Latha, owner of the Visit India tour company in Mumbai, said some Indian men assume when they see foreign women drink or do drugs that they also are eager for sex. The only solution, he said, is for tourists to dress modestly and protect themselves.

"Trust me, India cannot do anything. The Indian government is the worst in the world. If we can't protect our own countrywomen, what can we do for foreigners?" he said.

At the end of their six-week trip, De Paolo and Wahner say their groping incidents are not the only thing they'll remember about a vast and richly cultured subcontinent.

Still, Wahner said, "Now, after this trip, I would for example never travel alone as a woman in India."

They quickly learned to take precautions: always dressing modestly in long sleeves and trousers outside major cities, rarely venturing out of their hotels after dark. Being friendly, but not too friendly, to men and trying to find Indian women for company.

"It's strange. You don't want to judge every man who sits next to you," Wahner said. "But sometimes in the end, yes, they do touch you."

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