In 2015, when Michelle De Scheemaeker decided it was time to take her first solo trip abroad, India topped her list of destinations.
Three years earlier, the 22-year-old Belgian, along with other students of religious studies, had visited the country, touring places such as Amritsar’s Golden Temple and New Delhi’s Jama Masjid.
However, a lot had changed since then.
After the gang rape of a woman physiotherapy student on a bus in New Delhi in December 2012, India’s reputation took a beating, deterring female foreign tourists from travelling alone in the country. The number of such tourists dropped by 35% in the first three months of 2013, according to a survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce & Industry of India.
The increasing number of violent incidents involving foreign visitors worsened things. In 2014, a Japanese tourist was gangraped in the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya in Bihar. The next year, an American tourist was gangraped in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh.
“Because it was my first solo travel experience, and because of the stories about rape in India, I decided to go to Sri Lanka instead,” De Scheemaeker said in an email, “It seemed more like a manageable place… and I had female friends who (had) travelled there and felt completely safe.”
On Aug. 28, the Indian tourism minister himself detailed a list of dos and don’ts that would be handed to foreign tourists upon arrival. Among the suggestions that minister Mahesh Sharma mentioned was to “avoid skirts and don’t go out alone at night.”
Yet, a number of foreign and Indian women go against the grain, allured by the idea of travelling alone through the country’s impressive landscapes and historical sites.
“A man may stare at you or push you out of line, but someone else may offer you a snack on the train and help you get your heavy bag down from the top bunk,” Rachel Jones, a travel blogger, wrote in the Huffington post.
“In some ways, the people are like people everywhere else, but the culture is one of a kind.”
Indian women, too, are warming up to the idea of travelling solo.
“…It appears that lesser (sic) Indian women now perceive travelling alone in India as unsafe,” Nikhil Ganju, country manager for TripAdvisor India, told the DNA newspaper last year. He was referring to the results of TripAdvisor’s 2015 women traveller survey, which revealed that only 11% of Indian women said travelling solo was unsafe, a smaller portion than the previous year’s 33%.
Vasudhaa Narayanan is one of them. While the 25-year-old photography student lived in Bengaluru, she travelled around south India alone and found the experience worth any risk.
“I don’t think that the safety aspect has ever stopped me from travelling,” Narayanan said. “I think if you’re smart and if you’re aware of how the society works, and how people are, and what you should encourage and what you shouldn’t, you’re pretty safe.”
For Narayanan, the larger concern is the lack of infrastructure, including bright street lights on lonely roads and hygienic sanitation facilities, that makes travelling as a woman more difficult in India.
“It’s not women who need to change,” Narayanan said, noting that untoward incidents can easily be prevented if education and awareness of women’s equality are promoted across the country.
Nevertheless, a number of bloggers have taken to providing advice for solo female travellers, detailing tips and tricks to ensure safety, including suggestions such as carrying pepper spray and keeping a low profile in conservative areas. Such information, coupled with stories of more positive experiences, is spreading around the world.
Earlier this year, Michelle De Scheemaeker decided to take the plunge alone. And she’s glad she did.
“People have been very helpful, (including) men, in a way that I did not feel uncomfortable at all,” she said, adding that she’s already booked tickets for her next trip back.