India moves to ease visa restrictions to attract tourists

NEW DELHI (AFP) - India is looking at issuing visas on arrival for visitors from 40 more countries, a minister has said, raising hopes it will overcome national security fears to boost its tourism industry.

A meeting of senior officials from the home, foreign and tourism ministries, as well as intelligence officers, concluded on Monday evening with a consensus in favour of the sweeping visa reform.

"There was a consensus about initiating the process to make India a tourist-friendly country and extending the on-arrival visa facility to around 40 more countries," Planning Minister Rajeev Shukla told the Press Trust of India news agency.

The new countries would include the United States and Britain - the source of about 25 percent of all tourists last year - as well as Canada, Brazil, Australia and most western European nations including France and Germany.

Despite its cultural attractions, beaches and mountains, India attracts relatively few foreign holidaymakers - 6.58 million in 2012, which was about a quarter of Thailand or Malaysia, for example.

In 2009, it tightened restrictions in the wake of revelations that David Headley, a militant of American and Pakistani descent who helped plot the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, had regularly stayed in the country on long-term tourist visas.

India currently issues visas on arrival to visitors from about a dozen foreign nations including Japan, Finland, Singapore, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Philippines among others.

All others must apply several weeks in advance and visit a visa-processing centre in person.

The proposed relaxation of the rules, which is likely to take time to organise and would require cabinet-level approval, was hailed by The Times of India newspaper in an editorial.

"While relaxing our restrictive visa regime is a good first step, much more needs to be done to attract visitors to India," it said.

The proposed changes would also make it easier for elderly visitors and those wishing to attend conferences, the Press Trust of India reported.

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