"One incident like this takes us back five years...first it was Nirbhaya and now this," Union tourism minister Mahesh Sharma said on Wednesday. He was alluding to the sexual assault on a 27-year-old executive by an Uber cab driver last week and the December 2012 bus rape and torture of a paramedic student who died later. India gets less than 1 per cent of the world's tourists.
While the "panic button" plan is being fleshed out, the ministry has already started putting in place some safeguards.
Starting December 25, a "welcome kit" put together by the ministry will be handed to all foreign tourists at immigration counters in nine airports, including Delhi, Calcutta and Goa.
The kit, the first such move ever, will have a list of "dos and don'ts", especially for women travelling alone, and details of the facilities provided by the Centre. The ministry is keen to have in the kit a welcome letter addressed by Narendra Modi, though the PMO has not yet approved the proposal.
Along with a "welcome card", the ministry plans to offer a list of "prescribed" taxi services. "We would advise tourists, especially female tourists travelling alone, to only use GPS-fitted cars. A list of taxi services will be attached with the welcome card and we will maintain a database recording antecedents of each of the driver working for the prescribed taxi services," Sharma said.
On the "panic button" proposal, the ministry officials said the modalities of how it would function were still being finalised.
But Sharma said one plan being considered was to provide tourists a barcode - similar to those seen on utility bills and merchandise. "We are looking at developing an alarm system through barcodes which will relay the location of the tourist to our (proposed) call centre and help can be extended immediately."
A senior ministry official said the system could work through something as ubiquitous as a cellphone or any other gadget with scanning features.
"Each tourist will be provided a certain barcode and it will be registered against his or her name and passport number. When these codes are scanned by their mobile phones or any transmitting device, it will send signals to (our planned) call centre, which will alert the local police," the official said. The call centre is likely to be launched in a few months.
Minister Sharma suggested that such a "panic button" system would break language barriers too, even helping tourists who cannot speak English. "You can reach police by calling 100 but how, for example, will a Chinese tourist not conversant in English explain what trouble he or she is in."
This year, India received 58.35 lakh tourists between January and October, a touch higher than the figure in the same period of 2013. The country's share in the world tourist market is only 0.64 per cent, according to government data. It is ranked eighth among 10 Asian countries, behind China, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore, Japan and Indonesia. Only the Philippines and Sri Lanka are lower.