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India spreads a big welcome carpet

Bangkok Post/ by Umesh Pandey

Many issues were on my mind this past week but some can wait for discussion later, because I’d like to single out one country that has taken a bold step to help it capture the huge potential it possesses.

To many people’s surprise, India took one of the boldest steps in its recent history when the government decided to relax visa regulations in a country that has always been quite restrictive about the people it admits.

The visa relaxation extends to 180 nations including all the countries in Asean plus the likes of United States, the United Kingdom and the rest of the developed and developing world with just a handful of exceptions.

What was most surprising was that India, which considers China its key regional rival, extended to citizens of China the same privileges as their peers in 179 other countries. The gesture is yet another sign that relations between the two nations are on the mend, despite some lingering differences, such as the Chinese claim to parts of Arunachal Pradesh and tensions in the north Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir.

Prior to this, India had granted visa-on-arrival privileges to just 12 countries: Japan, Finland, Luxembourg, New Zealand and some Asean countries such as Myanmar, Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Singapore.

Nationals of eight countries singled out for security reasons will still need to apply for visas at Indian embassies, a process that can take weeks. They include Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia and Sri Lanka.

There is a small catch. The system will be in place by September and travellers from 180 countries will need to apply for electronic travel authorisation at least three days prior to their travel. Once in India they will have to undergo biometric identification to get a visa.

But the good thing is that tourists will then be able to travel throughout the country for 30 days, which is not renewable. The service will be available at nine key airports: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Cochin, Hyderabad, Goa and Trivandrum. It will be expanded to cover 17 other airports soon after.

It has been a long time coming, but give credit to India for the astonishing step it has taken, especially considering the many threats it faces, from insurgency in the north and northeast as well as other terrorist group activity.

As a country of more than 1.2 billion people with a diverse cultural heritage that dates back thousands of years, India has some of the greatest tourism potential in the world. Its bountiful natural beauty extends from beautiful beaches on the east and west coasts to the desert and palaces of Rajasthan, the lush green rainforests in the northeast, the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the ski slopes of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.

I have always told friends and colleagues that no country gives a tourist better bang for the buck than India, as long as one can deal with the day-to-day chaos.

But that chaos over the years has been lessening, thanks to various steps the government has taken. It is clear that campaigns such as “Atithi Devo Bhava” (Tourists are like God) and Incredible India have started to yield results.

Of course, negative publicity lingers and legitimate safety concerns remain to be addressed in light of the terrible rape cases that have made headlines worldwide. But tourist numbers in India rose by 4% to just over 7 million last year; that compares to 26.7 million tourists who visited Thailand, a much smaller country.

If one wants to compare Thailand with India, consider one other factor. A lot of the success of Thailand’s tourism sector, apart from good infrastructure, has stemmed from relaxation of visa rules and visa on arrival procedures. You might be surprised to know, though, that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs actually gives visas on arrival to just 28 countries and offers visa exemptions to a total of 48.

So the fact that India has relaxed the rules for up to 180 countries is unexpected. For Asean residents, we now have greater and easier access to Buddhist pilgrimage sites, and some may begin to look at India in a very different light as a possible destination for short breaks.

It is also commendable, in this day and age, for a country with so many pressing security concerns to display such openness in welcoming citizens from so many places. One has to give a standing ovation to the people who had the courage to undertake this move, for it will be beneficial for the country’s population in the years ahead.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)

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India spreads a big welcome carpet

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