Union Finance Minister Mr. Jaitely, recently announced during the Budget speech an additional Rs 1000 cr towards the safety of women. However it was the same Minister not long back in September 2014, that made a statement about the incident of Delhi gang rape costing millions of dollars to the tourism industry. This statement does not only speak volumes about the government perception towards women’s safety but also reveals the approach of government towards tourism. It clearly indicates that earning foreign exchange carries much more weight than ensuring safety and security of its citizens. The minister must remember that a series of harassment against foreign women tourists has led to 25% decline in women travellers to the country and a 30% decease in Delhi. However, the minister has chosen to see violence against women causing losses to the tourism industry while conveniently veiling the issue that demands engagement at systemic level in tourism sector.
It’s only been slightly over a year since the government acknowledged the issue of safety and security of women at tourist destinations. Responding to the gang rape of a foreign woman tourist and series of harassment cases against women tourists, the Ministry of Tourism launched a campaign “I respect women” in 2013. While the initiative shows recognition of the issue by the Ministry, one wonders if the reason was because India’s image globally was taking a beating or if they were truly concerned because of the harassment faced by women tourists. If the reason is the latter, why hasn’t an initiative like this been taken earlier when so many Indian women tourists have also been faced with similar situations. Moreover, on the initiative itself, there is lack of information about implementation of the campaign by the central and state governments. More importantly, it raises a question of whether wearing a badge written “I respect women” is enough to mark a dent on the outlook of society towards women. If this were the case, the recent incidents of women raped in Rajasthan and Bihar, could have been avoided. The root causes of crime and sexual exploitation of women is embedded in the perceptions of gender relationships which manifest through power and control at the household, community and social levels. Another aspect of gender is related caste and caste. Directly or indirectly promotion of tourism represents women as products thereby impacting the dignity and respect of women resulting in exploitation.
Another important concern is framing the issue in the language of protection than rights-based framework. The incidents of abuse to women tourists received attention from the hotel industry, mainly few big players who have taken initiatives to cater to the needs of women travellers (allocating rooms close to the elevator, women attendants for room service, separate sections, better patrolling and security, maintaining privacy of women guests’ room number, hiring more female attendants). This was also followed by dos and don’ts for women tourists by the Lonely Planet or advisory on safety and security issued by foreign governments (British and Australia). The attitude of providing protection to women along with absence of right based framework has in fact fed into seclusion of places and segregation of jobs in hotels. With this approach, it is not difficult to understand why hiring more female housekeeping staff is considered but not hiring / training more women to become managers? Denial of women’s agency is the core of such practices.
Denial of responsibilities by the sector to address the cause is another manifestation of such initiatives as it imposes ‘dos and don’ts’ on women but does not talk about the responsibilities of the government and the industry. A recent banner in Varanasi during Holi indicates just this attitude. Significance of making infrastructure women friendly cannot be ignored but at the same time what has prevented companies within the tourism industry to form the Internal Complaint Committee under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Work Place (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013. What has prevented the government to strengthen the mechanisms like Code of Conduct for Safe and Honorable Tourism. The code was launched by the MoT in 2010 aims to encourage tourism activities with respect to basic rights like dignity, safety and freedom from exploitation of both tourists and local residents i.e. people and communities. Lack of awareness about the code with regard to the protection of women among state tourism officials and lack of legal enforceability allows service providers such as hotels, restaurants, lodges, guest houses, tour agents, transport operators like taxis, buses, tour guides and other services to escape from their responsibility to make the destination safe and secure.
The question of unfriendly tourism destinations and right to access public place is yet to form among such initiatives. An important question that remains unanswered is whose accessibility is accepted at tourism destinations?
Accessibility of women tourists from certain strata of society with purchasing power is legitimate but not women from lower working classes. Street vendors, sex workers, rag pickers, construction workers and women artisans are in constant denial of access to the destinations but their issues are never recognised. Women taxi drivers supposedly promoted by Goa Tourism Development Corporation (which was later discovered to be owned and operated by a private firm) are compelling the women drivers to work during the nights and on their days off. On throwing light to the injustice being done, they have been threatened termination from their work.
Legitimacy of access of marginalised women is evidenced through constant eviction from the destination. Paying a bribe to authorities including police and goons is one of the only options left to these women to access these spaces. Increase in drug abuse, alcoholism, molestation/ eve teasing at public places like beach, temples and heritage sites seclude local women from such spaces. Thus, legitimacy to access such spaces is constructed at the cost of marginalisation of other women.
The government and the tourism industry need to recognise tourism as a site for blatant and inhuman exploitation of women in tourism and to respond to the critical questions raised by engaging with the issues at a systemic level to ensure that women’s needs and rights are taken into account in tourism. Introspection of present policies and mechanism to safeguard women tourists as well as women living in tourism destinations and engaged in tourism is critical. Making tourism work for women is the need of the hour.