Dispatch, Ganges: India's perception problem


Michelle Baran in India

Michelle Baran is on the Bengal Ganga, cruising the Ganges River in India. Her third dispatch follows. Click to read Michelle's first and second dispatches.  

VARINASI, India — Almost every country has some kind of perception problem, however small or large. Even France — France! — has been tackling the perception that it is a rude country.

And we're aware of the perception problem facing North Africa and the Middle East right.

India is no exception. It has its own perception problems.

From a tourism point of view, India's biggest perception challenges have been the reputation of foreigners getting sick, and that visiting India means being confronted in a very raw way with poverty and hardship.

Sunrise bathers cleansing themselves in the Ganges.

More recently, India is facing another perception problem from a high-profile gang-rape. Last week, four of the defendants were sentenced to death. The case has brought to light the problem of aggression and sexual assault against women in India.

Tackling this latest issue will require soul searching and activism inside the country, as well as a fair amount of damage control in promoting the destination outside the country. There are reports that the media coverage of the gang-rape case has had a negative impact on tourism.

Perception problems present both a challenge and an opportunity for companies that operate organized vacations in India to offer customers the comfort, safety and security of traveling with a group in a controlled environment.

I've asked myself, as I've been traveling throughout the country with Haimark over the last week-and-a-half, whether I would be willing to do this all on my own, whether there would be any advantages to doing this by myself versus with a group. And with India, the answer is definitively no.

First, let's talk about the security of traveling in a group. As a woman traveling in India, it's not that I feel directly threatened, but I definitely feel a lot of eyeballs on me and like an object of interest (in fairness, often times most of our group did, simply because we traveled to some areas that are almost void of foreigners).

Bottom line, I certainly don't mind being in the company of a larger group and some burly men, especially in areas that are very crowded. Also, traveling in a group comes with the comfort of knowing that if you do fall ill or have something unfortunate happen to you, you have a support network, and just knowing that adds an extra level of assuredness.

Navigating the streets of Varanasi at night on a rickshaw.

Second, the food and stomach woes India is notorious for, aka "Delhi belly," was a big concern for me. So, I was thrilled when I interviewed Haimark culinary director Jorg Penneke, who oversaw the meals served on the Bengal Ganga for the seven days we sailed the Ganges River.

Penneke informed me about the precautions taken in the kitchen to ensure the food is safe to eat. For instance, he showed me the sanitizing tablets he uses to purify the fruits and vegetables that are served raw.

Lastly, there are the logistics. In many countries, getting around just requires some common sense and a good map. Not so in India. After visiting Varanasi this weekend, I couldn't be more thankful to have had seasoned guides helping me to successfully navigate the absolutely stunning chaos of one of India's holiest cities.

So, while India's perception problem is something that is not going away, and it may deter certain would-be travelers, there are ways to make the experience much easier, and there are travel companies that can help you do it.

Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI