By Staff Reporter
India’s tourism minister has described the alleged rape of a Japanese visitor near the Buddhist holy city of Bodh Gaya as a “national shame” amid fears that the rising number of reported attacks on foreign and local women could hurt efforts to boost the country’s tourism industry.
Mahesh Sharma, the minister, told reporters over the weekend that the 22-year-old woman’s alleged ordeal was a serious concern for the government. “We have to take care of the security of travellers,” he said.
The woman, who met one of her alleged attackers in Kolkata on November 20 and was impressed with his fluent Japanese, said the men had offered to show her around some tourist sites. She also said that during her ordeal, her debit cards were used to empty her bank accounts.
Two of the five are being held on suspicion of rape, while three others are accused of crimes such as extortion, criminal conspiracy and kidnapping. The woman reported her alleged ordeal to Kolkata police on December 26 after she was freed and made her way to the Japanese consulate in the city.
Despite its vast size, rich cultural and architectural heritage and diverse ecosystems, India receives fewer than 7m foreign tourists a year — many of whom are people of Indian origin visiting relatives — compared with nearly 27m in Thailand.
New Delhi is trying to woo more tourists to boost an industry with significant job-generating potential. In November, it launched an initiative that allows citizens of 40 countries, including Australia, Japan and the US, to receive tourist visas “on arrival” by applying online ahead of the visit.
But a series of attacks on female tourists and several high-profile rape cases involving Indian women in recent years has put an unwelcome spotlight on the issues surrounding women’s safety in a still highly traditional patriarchal society .
In 2007 three people were arrested for allegedly drugging and raping two Japanese tourists in the northern city of Agra, while three men were sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for raping a 25-year-old Japanese tourist on her way from Bodh Gaya to the Gaya railway station.
In 2013, a Swiss cyclist camping with her husband in Madhya Pradesh was robbed and raped by five men, who were subsequently sentenced to life in prison. In January 2014, a 51-year-old Danish tourist was robbed and raped at knifepoint just outside the main New Delhi railway station.
Many governments urge women travellers to exercise extreme caution in India, even when travelling in groups.
“Reported cases of sexual assault against women and young girls are increasing,” the UK travel advisory says. “Recent sexual attacks against female visitors in tourist areas and cities show that foreign women are also at risk.”
The Japanese government’s safety manual for travellers to India, updated on its website at the end of December, warned of incidents of sexual assault and theft involving female Japanese visitors in popular tourist areas including New Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Bodh Gaya.