Is India Really Ready for Foreign Tourists?

Earlier this month, the Indian tourism industry breathed a sigh of relief: the government had finally announced that foreign tourists would once again be allowed to visit India. However, confusion and frustration quickly followed the good news. With the finer details of the arrangement undecided, stakeholders and tourists alike wondered exactly how it would work. Persistent lobbying from state governments and industry groups has convinced the central government to restart inbound tourism, but what about preparation?

According to the government notification, charter flights can arrive in India from October 15 (these flights usually bring tour groups from Russia and the UK to Goa). Other foreign tourists will have to wait until November 15 to enter. All tourists must obtain new visas. This includes holders of multi-year tourist visas as these visas will remain suspended. (To compensate, the government is offering the first 500,000 new visas free of charge). Only 30-day single-entry visas are available. However, it’s unclear who can get one and what the rules will be. As of October 15, the government’s online visa portal had not been updated with any information. He also did not accept visa applications.

The government has indicated that “reciprocal treatment” will apply to foreign tourists based on their country’s policy for Indian tourists, not on risk. It is difficult to understand how this will help India be tourist-friendly or alleviate the virus. As it stands, inconsistencies in testing and quarantine requirements are hampering travel. Mumbai, for example, currently imposes a 14-day home quarantine on international arrivals from certain countries, regardless of their vaccination status. In Delhi, it’s seven days. Regulations for interstate travel also vary.

Even if these issues are resolved, the big question remains: who will come to India? Until the ban on scheduled international flights is lifted, it is necessary to take an “air bubble” flight. Frequent visitors to India, who have connections such as friends and family, love to travel. However, the interest of other foreigners is lacking. Along with limited flight options and expensive plane tickets, the virus is a deterrent. Foreigners aren’t the only ones to worry. Many people in India are afraid of the increase in cases after the festival season and do not think it wise to open up to tourism. Additionally, Kerala, one of India’s most popular tourist destinations, is struggling to control the virus despite a high vaccination rate.

Here is the riddle. The inbound tourism industry has suffered greatly from the loss of business and income. And, it will take a lot more than issuing new visas to revive it. Unfortunately, the pandemic has created a negative perception of India abroad. A major rebranding and promotion campaign is needed to attract tourists. There is exciting potential for change and reinvention, but will it happen?

Crowds that could potentially spread the virus are worrying foreign tourists. Such crowds are hard to avoid in the cities, but India is a huge country! As domestic tourists discover quirky destinations, the same ancient monuments are sold to foreigners. Now is the perfect time to innovate and focus on regional areas, where foreign tourists can have local community experiences and make meaningful connections with the heart of India.

Tourism infrastructure also needs attention. Considering the emphasis on sanitation and hygiene, how can India be considered a desirable place to visit when basic facilities such as adequate and clean toilets are not provided? Yet the powers that be do not seem to view this as problematic or important.

The reality is that inbound tourism won’t really start to pick up until October of next year. This will require a motivated collaborative effort between government, tourism associations, hotels and travel agencies. A pandemic-wide disruption offers an incredible opportunity for transformation. Hopefully India will take the opportunity to evolve and exploit its unprecedented tourism potential.

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