India is facing an uphill battle to restore confidence in its tourism industry after a number of countries – including the UK – issued warnings to their citizens that they could be targeted in terrorist attacks.
Demand has also been sapped by the Indian government’s attempts to shut gaping holes in its security procedures exposed by the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008, including the introduction of restrictions on travelling to the country on a tourist visa and closer scrutiny of foreign visitors.
Last week the country’s external affairs minister, S. M.Krishna, was forced to deny that the country was unsafe for tourists, insisting visitors had “nothing to worry” about. “Let me scotch all speculative reports that India is a country infested by terrorists. I reject this totally,” he said. India’s Tourism Ministry has also commissioned four new advertisements for its “Incredible India” campaign in the hope of boosting tourism numbers.
But the assurances have cut little ice with foreign governments. The UK, US, Australia and Canada have all issued travel advisories warning of the high risk of terrorist attacks. “There is a high general threat from terrorism throughout India,” the Foreign Office warned. “Future attacks may target public places frequented by westerners and expatriates, including in the major metropolitan centres (Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Mumbai) and tourist areas such as Goa.”
Similar warnings have been issued by the other countries, with the US noting that it “continues to receive information that terrorist groups may be planning attacks in India”, while Canadians are told to “maintain a high level of vigilance” and “avoid crowded places”.
Rattled by the manifest failings in its security arrangements exposed by the Mumbai attacks, India has been attempting to tighten its monitoring system for visitors. The discovery that a foreign national, David Coleman Headley, made several visits to the country, allegedly to carry out reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks, has prompted greater scrutiny of visitors.
Headley, a Pakistan-born US citizen, was arrested by the FBI in October. He has been accused of planning terrorist attacks in India and Denmark and is said to have links to the Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorist group blamed for the attacks that killed 166 people in Mumbai in 2008.
Hotels have now been instructed to carry out stringent new checks on foreigners and to report all visitors to the police. Some hotels are now insisting that prospective guests call home to have someone vouch for their identity before allowing them to take a room.
Instructions have also been issued to increase vigilance at popular tourist sites, including the Taj Mahal. Among the measures proposed are eight watchtowers surrounding the World Heritage site.
Critics of some of the new security measures have warned that India risks further alienating potential visitors. Shashi Tharoor, a junior foreign minister, was carpeted last week when he used Twitter to question the new visa rules. “Is all that worth it just in hope of making it difficult for a future Headley to recce? R we going 2 allow terrorists 2 make us less welcoming?” he wrote
Some five million tourists visit India every year, including about 750,000 Britons, and the industry is worth an estimated £7.5bn.
India is also hoping to cash in on hosting the Commonwealth Games next year, but a series of high-profile attacks across India last year saw a drop in tourism.
Philip Hamilton-Grierson, marketing director for travel firm Cox & Kings, said a number of factors had combined to depress UK tourism to India over the past year. “However, our experience of the impact of terrorist attacks on other popular tourist destinations, such as Egypt, tends to suggest that it takes about a year after such events for consumer confidence to return to normal,” he said.