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Where is everybody?

It’s cheaper than ever to go to India, but tourists—especially women—are staying away

While India’s plummeting rupee (it opened Wednesday at another record low) is bad news for industries who rely on imports, many citizens and the central bank, it should be great for tourism. It is now 20% cheaper in US dollars to visit tourist hotspots like Mumbai or Rajasthan than it was in the beginning of the year, and news of the rupee’s plummeting value is landing just ahead of the prime fall vacation season.

There’s no guarantee, though, that foreign tourists will start booking vast suites in some of India’s swankiest properties, like the 48,000 INR (now a low $730) a night Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, or a wide variety of cheaper locations that sprang up in recent years. The latest high-profile attack on a woman, last weekend’s rape of a photographer in Mumbai, has once again illustrated how unsafe India can be for women.

The tourism industry has already suffered after a series of attacks on women in recent months. Overall hotel occupancy rates in India fell from 58.8% in the first half of 2012 to 58.2% in the first half of this year, according to STR Global. Average room rates, in rupee terms, dropped 3.6% to RS 6,040 ($US). Statistics from the Ministry of Tourism showed that the growth in number of tourists slowed significantly in the beginning of 2013, and a chamber of commerce survey of tour operators released in late March showed visits from women dropped 35%. Three-quarters of respondents in a Wall Street Journal poll said they thought India was unsafe for women tourists.

Much of the decline in hotel occupancy came because of a sharp drop in tourists in January, generally one of India’s busiest months, and just after the December 2012 Delhi gang rape that became international news. Jaipur, part of the must-see “golden triangle” of ancient forts, the Taj Mahal and five-star hotels, has been one of the hardest-hit Indian cities, with occupancy rates falling in January to levels last seen just after the Mumbai bombings of 2008, and in February and March to the lowest levels in seven years, STR Global reported.

Travel-planning websites and tastemakers, which feted India in recent years as a “must-see” destination, and declared that its largest city was having it’s “moment” were largely mum this year. India didn’t figure on the Lonely Planet “Top 10 Countries to Visit” list (though neighbor Sri Lanka was number 1), or National Geographic’s “Best trips 2013.”

India’s Ministry of Tourism made no comment after several foreign tourists were raped this year, but a visiting student’s well-read blog post about the harassment and assault she faced in India seems to have inspired the ministry to act. On Aug. 24, the minister issued a statement saying he was “extremely pained” to hear of the student’s experience.

To reassure tourists, the ministry has launched a “sensitization campaign,” he said, called “I respect women.” Now, he just needs to convince more than half a billion Indian men to do the same.

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