India to reopen to foreign tourists as Covid-19 infection rates stay low

Workers cleaning a water fountain tank at the Taj Mahal in India on Sept 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI - India is reopening its doors to foreign tourists in an effort to kick-start the tourism sector, which has been in the doldrums for the past 18 months because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government on Thursday (Oct 7) announced that tourist visas would be available to foreigners arriving by charter flights from Oct 15 and to those arriving on regular commercial flights from Nov 15.

Currently, India has not fully restored international flights. Flight frequency is still far below pre-pandemic levels, with air carriers largely operating repatriation flights.

Last month, the government announced that the first half a million foreign tourists would receive free visas.

All visitors and the air carriers bringing them into India as well as other stakeholders at landing stations must adhere to Covid-19 protocols with the easing of restrictions, the government said.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit all sectors of the Indian economy but tourism has been among the worst affected.

A study by the Confederation of Indian Industry and hospitality consulting firm Hotelivate found that the travel and tourism industry and the entire value chain linked to the sector have sustained losses totalling US$65.57 billion (S$89 billion).

Some 21.5 million people lost their jobs during the nine-month period from April 2020 till December 2020, according to a study by the National Council of Applied Economic Research for the tourism ministry.

India imposed a strict lockdown in March last year, shutting down economic activity and cross-border movement for 21 days, leading to major disruption to the economy. The country was then hit by a devastating second Covid-19 wave just as it opened up and the economy was recovering.

Those in the tourism trade welcomed the government's announcement on Thursday but also noted that it was essential to remove restrictions on scheduled international flights.

The chief executive of Indigo, India's largest passenger airline by market share, Mr Ronojoy Dutta, recently said that carriers were operating only around 20 per cent of their pre-pandemic international flights from India. This has led to more than the doubling of fares on some routes against the backdrop of heightened demand.

Mr Subhash Goyal, chairman at STIC Travel and Air Charter Group and a tourism expert, welcomed the announcement but did not expect any immediate reprieve for the tourism industry.

"Right now, flights are choked with repatriation passengers. For tourists, the need is to start scheduled international flights simultaneously. Right now for students, a Toronto flight, which usually costs 50,000 rupees (S$903), costs 400,000 rupees on average. To go to Singapore, a passenger needs to go to Dubai first and take a flight to Singapore," said Mr Goyal.

"How can you get tourists from all over the world to come to India when there are no direct flights between India and many countries? It requires a holistic approach. Still, something is better than nothing," he added.

India has opened up incrementally over the past year, signing air bubble agreements with more than two dozen countries, operating repatriation flights and allowing foreigners to travel to India for business purposes.

Thursday's decision comes as Covid-19 infection rates remained relatively low in the country. India reported 21,257 new cases and 271 deaths in the 24 hours up to Friday, said the health ministry.

It noted that the recovery rate for patients was 97.96 per cent, the highest since March 2020. At the height of the second wave, the number of daily cases soared to more than 400,000 nationwide.

Low infection rates have already led to a revival in domestic tourism and Mr Dipak Deva, managing director for Travel Corporation of India, described Thursday's announcement as a "critical move" for inbound tourism.

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