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Female tourists steering clear of India after sex attacks

Mariellen Ward
 in India
Mariellen Ward
 visits the Taj Mahal in 2006 during her first trip to India, a six-month solo adventure.Courtesy Mariellen Ward

When it comes to traveling to India, Mariellen Ward proudly shares her stats: six solo visits in the last seven years, totaling 17 months exploring the country she calls her passion.

“Everything is vibrant, it’s so alive. India is like Technicolor, it makes the rest of the world look like it’s in black and white,” Ward, a writer who lives in Toronto, told NBC News.

But that image has been marred for many travelers after recent attacks on women that have horrified the world.

Now, a new study is providing the first glimpse of how the incidents are impacting the country’s tourism industry.

The number of visitors arriving in India has dropped by 25 percent in the last three months, according to a survey released Sunday by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India.

The survey, which polled 1,200 tour operators across the country, also found the number of female tourists fell by 35 percent during the same time period.

72 percent of the tour operators surveyed said they have seen travelers change their minds about coming to India, with cancellations coming mainly from the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia.

India’s Ministry of Tourism and the Travel Agents Association of India did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the country has been dealing with troubling headlines for months.

In December, a 23-year-old student was gang-raped in an assault so brutal that she later died. Days later, a British woman in Agra jumped from a second-floor hotel room when she feared the manager was trying to break in, while in another case a Swiss man was held at gunpoint while his wife was gang-raped in Madhya Pradesh.

The violence is undeniably on the minds of travelers considering a trip to the region, said Ashish Sanghrajka, a travel agent who specializes in India at Big Five Tours & Expeditions in Stuart, Fla.

People are asking more questions, they’re definitely aware of what’s happening… they’re definitely concerned about it,” Sanghrajka said.

He hasn’t had any clients cancel a trip, but many are now asking about the availability of local guides who could escort them during their journey and act as a “security blanket,” Sanghrajka said. They’re also inquiring much more about the hotels they will be staying at and willing to spend more on a luxury hotel if it means safety, he added.

When it comes to questions about the attacks, Sanghrajka said there’s no way to explain what is happening.

“If you don’t feel safe going, you probably shouldn’t go. The last thing you want to do is go to a country and feel like you’re looking over your shoulder the whole time,” he said.

Ward, who was in India in January, decided to cut her trip short, in part because of the somber mood that enveloped the country after the horrific gang-rape, but she emphasized it was not because she felt in danger.

“The mood of the country contributed to me leaving but I didn’t feel more unsafe and I didn’t feel like oh, suddenly I’m going to be raped and murdered,” she said. “Rape is a world-wide crisis and it’s not just in India.”

Ward has never felt particularly unsafe during her travels, she said. But she urged women who are considering a trip to India or anywhere else to do their research and, if traveling alone for the first time, to stay in touristy areas and not go off the beaten path. Ward always dresses very modestly in India and plans her travels carefully, avoiding arriving in a city in the middle of the night, for example.

You can find more of her tips for traveling in India as a woman on her blog.