As I wandered through the museum at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata, India, in September, I had the overwhelming sense that the historical documents weren't the only items on display. It felt as though I was as much an attraction as the exhibits themselves. Male eyes peered curiously as I tried my hardest to focus on the information and artifacts in the display cases.
Who's to say if the other museum-goers were looking my way because I'm a woman, because I'm a white American or because they were just people-watching? Whatever the reason, I was definitely an object of interest.
And, given the string of violence against women in India this year, my anxiety was not unfounded.
While I was traveling in the country, four men were sentenced to death for having raped and killed a 23-year-old woman in New Delhi nine months earlier.
The attack and the corresponding trial sparked heated debate across the country, bringing to light India's ongoing challenges with women's rights issues, especially the question of violence against females.
What's more, that rape had been followed by two more, these involving tourists. In March, a Swiss cyclist was gang-raped in the state of Madhya Pradesh in India, and a South Korean tourist was raped in the same state in January.
At a time when the number of female travelers worldwide is skyrocketing, these attacks drove the issue of women's safety while traveling to a fever pitch.
This past summer, the New York Times reported that visits to India by female tourists had dropped 35% in the first three months of 2013 compared with the same period in 2012. The Times attributed its data to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India, an Indian business organization.
Because of the media attention surrounding the issue, I was admittedly more sensitive to the fact I was a woman traveling in India this fall. True, as I visited New Delhi, Kolkata, Varanasi, Jaipur and Agra, I never actually felt unsafe.
But neither was I about to take any unnecessary risks while I was there. I didn't feel tempted to walk around at night on my own, and I was happy to be traveling with a group and in the care of experienced ground operators and tour guides.
But the headlines left Indian tourism officials concerned that a recent uptick in visitors could be threatened.
According to Sujata Thakur, regional director for the Americas in India's tourism ministry, more than 1 million U.S. travelers visited India in 2012, an increase of between 6% and 7% over 2011. And Thakur said the country expects that growth to be repeated in 2013.
Determined not to let the trial and the perception that India might be unsafe for female travelers to dampen that growth, the tourism ministry and Indian tour operators have touted their efforts to ensure travelers' safety.
"When a guest travels with an established tour operator like A&K, they are looked after from their arrival until departure," Vikram Madhok, managing director for Abercrombie & Kent India, wrote in an email.
Other operators and India suppliers agreed that if travelers visit India with an established outfit, they will be safe and secure while there.
Risks and rewards
As I was preparing to go to India, friends and family voiced concern because of the rape/murder case and the questions it brought to bear about whether India is a safe destination. But the larger question is really one of whether women feel -- and are -- safe traveling to anywhere in the world, especially as a ballooning number of us are hitting the road.
I doubt there is any woman who has traveled alone who has not been in at least one or two unsavory situations while on the road. I could tell several stories myself, though fortunately none that end tragically.
Alex Cooley, a TV writer in Los Angeles who has traveled extensively domestically and abroad, recalled one such story.
"I was maybe 20," Cooley said. "I was in Northern Ireland. I'm eating a burger by myself, and these two brothers -- they look like bad people -- beckon me over and start asking me questions, and then they invite me to come back to their house and drink and smoke."
Fortunately, the encounter with the Irish brothers turned into a fun night out without incident.
Even so, she said, "I tried to sort of handle the situation by acknowledging the danger -- but then I still did the sort of dumb thing. ... It was insanity. That could have really gone badly. It's a calculated risk every time."
And she suspects it was the fact that she was traveling that contributed to her taking the risk. "I would never be in that situation in Los Angeles," she said. "I don't need random friends."
I have heard countless similar stories of near run-ins with danger, both in reporting this article and in life, from intelligent, savvy women who are experienced travelers.
Despite the risks, however real or perceived, the number of women traveling is growing rapidly.
Women have been shown to be the main decision-makers when it comes to travel planning, and they are also traveling in greater numbers than ever before. Many of those trips are taken alone or with groups of female friends.
"It's a huge trend," said Marybeth Bond, who has voyaged to more than 100 countries, often on her own, and has written 12 books on the topic of women's travel. "Women are traveling more and more on their own, either because they have more economic independency or they just want to go to someplace that their friends or partners don't want to go."
Bond estimated, based on her own research, that women will spend some $125 billion on travel in the next year.
And in doing so, they will continue to smash many demographic stereotypes.
"The average adventure traveler is not a 28-year-old male but a 47-year-old female," she wrote on her website, GutsyTraveler.com, which is devoted to women's travel.
Consequently, the number of travel companies that cater to women's travel has multiplied in recent years -- companies such as Gutsy Women Travel, the Women's Travel Group and AdventureWomen, among many others.
"I've seen, over the decades, more and more women travel successfully on their own," Bond said. "It changed my life traveling alone."
Women's travel power
Speaking to women who travel extensively for business, pleasure or both, one gets the overwhelming sense that these jet-setting ladies find there is something inherently empowering about travel.
In some ways it seems to offer an outlet for women to nurture and strengthen their sense of independence.
Whatever the potential dangers, clearly they are not stopping women from traveling, from thoroughly enjoying travel or from traveling more than we ever have before.
For some travel companies, that determination and the capital it represents are opportunities worthy of embracing wholeheartedly.
"We've found that approximately 80% of all business-travel decisions are made by females," Kristine Rose, Hyatt's vice president of brands, told CNN in March.
After an 18-month outreach effort and 40 global focus group discussions intended to better tap into women's preferences when they're staying at a hotel, Hyatt introduced services and amenities earlier this year specifically geared toward women's needs and wants.
"Because women are such a critical segment of travelers, Hyatt focused its efforts on creating solutions to the issues that many women face on the road," the company said in a news release outlining its women-centric enhancements.
Hyatt's surveys found, for instance, women:
- Often don't think guestrooms are clean.
- Have insecurities about safety at hotels.
- Don't like to sit alone at the bar or restaurant but want a place other than their room to work or unwind.
- Find it difficult to maintain their health and well-being on the road.
- Think bath products are mediocre.
- Want to have a voice in their travel experience.
To respond to some of those findings, Hyatt introduced comment cards for guests to fill out in order to better communicate their needs to the housekeeping staff; healthy menu options have been incorporated into the food and beverage programs; and KenetMD Skin Care, Le Labo, June Jacobs and Aromapothecary bath and skin-care products have been introduced across its portfolio of brands.
Other travel suppliers are also paying more attention to female travelers' needs, including their desire for more safety. Over the past couple of years, there has been a trend in hotels creating female-only floors, including at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh in Saudi Arabia.
The assimilation issue
That global hotel companies would zero in on the needs of their female client base is a liberating notion to be sure and a testament to the growing force in travel that women represent.
But it also stands in harsh contrast to some of the realities women face when traveling to other parts of the world where the way females are viewed, accepted and valued vary drastically from Western norms.
How and whether to assimilate to gender-specific norms and expectations while traveling is not an easy issue for women to address, and different women tackle it very differently.
For example, in countries where it is common for women to wear headscarves or dress more conservatively, should women who don't typically cover up do so?
"I would hope that everybody does that and pays respects to a foreign place," said Georgia Alexandra Davis, owner of Silver Continents Fine Jewelry in New York. Davis is married to an Indian man and has traveled to India extensively, including with her two young children.
"I try and adapt in terms of [dress], and the sari is such a beautiful piece of clothing," she said. "The women are very dignified in terms of how they dress and how they present themselves."
But not all women feel the same.
As I was traveling through Egypt in the immediate aftermath of the Jan. 25 revolution in 2011, my female Egyptian guide was adamantly opposed to wearing a headscarf herself or to forcing other women, including her clients, to wear one.
I will never forget the ruckus we caused heading into a polling place together in a very conservative riverside town along the Nile so that I could witness her casting a vote in the country's first free parliamentary elections. We were the only two women in the entire town not shrouded in black, and the vibe was unwelcoming to say the least.
We were able to laugh off the discomfort we caused, in large part because we didn't feel overly threatened, in part because we had a male guide with us, too.
But whether or how women should assimilate to other cultures becomes a much more serious issue when women are attacked or raped while traveling. The recent reports of female tourists being attacked in countries like India and Brazil have served as reminders of the dangers female travelers still face while on the road.
In analyzing the circumstances of an attack on a female tourist like those that surfaced this year, one of the factors that inevitably gets addressed is whether the female victim had done something to put herself in a dangerous situation in a foreign country.
It's a touchy subject. Just as with the debate about dress, women themselves take different stances on this. Some might say that questioning why a female tourist was in a dark alley alone to begin with, or what she was doing in a dangerous neighborhood, are attempts to blame the victim rather than addressing the real problem: unhealthy, sometimes criminal attitudes and behaviors that men have about women in different parts of the world.
Others, wanting to ensure that women continue to travel with confidence, are careful not to portray in broad strokes the potential dangers that entire destinations or regions of the world present. That is especially true when the violence in question appears to have been an isolated incident.
"Take responsibility for yourself," Bond said. "Educate yourself before you go. ... Women who get in trouble are those who are not very savvy travelers to begin with. Use your street smarts. Would you do that in a questionable area in your own hometown? We women are aware of the dangers that surround us. Our little antennas go up."
Ask most women who have traveled extensively whether they have ever been in danger while in a foreign place, and oftentimes the first response is, "No, I've been lucky."
Most women acknowledge that there is definitely a certain amount of plain good fortune involved in having avoided peril while on the road.
But there are definitely some tricks of the women's travel trade.
Bond devotes an entire section of her website to women's travel safety tips that she assembled in wake of the India attacks (http://gutsytraveler.com/safety-tips-for-women-travelers/).
Bond writes that there are "three reasons women can be easy targets: lack of awareness of your surroundings, timid body language and being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Other successful female adventurers emphasize preparation and organization as typical of someone who knows exactly where she is going and what she is doing when in a foreign place.
Amanda Tarkow, a Los Angeles-based lawyer who travels internationally three or four times a year, said, "I usually do research in advance. At night, I wouldn't be by myself [holding up] a map."
She cautioned, "Even if you think you're a savvy traveler, you still have to be aware."
For others, technology and social media have served as crucial tools for staying safe, smart and connected while on the road.
"I think travel is getting safer," Bond said. "You have a cellphone. You can connect with people. You can read about what other women have done. Just because you start out [traveling] alone doesn't mean you will stay alone. Seek out women to talk to while you travel."
Yet ultimately, women have proven they cannot and will not be deterred from travel, despite the potential dangers. Most female travelers come back to the idea that the rewards far outweigh the risks.
"One of the saddest things when you travel," Cooley said, "is that you get so scared you don't try anything."
Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.