Even as the government announced on Monday that the process of evacuating stranded Indians from overseas will begin on May 7, sources in the Ministry of Tourism said the process of repatriation of foreigners who were stranded in India is almost complete now. As per their estimates, around 30,000 international visitors stranded in various parts of the country, have returned to their home countries by now through several rescue flights operating from key airports.
Over 4,000 stranded foreigners were helped through the ‘Stranded in India’ portal launched by the Ministry of Tourism a few days after the lockdown was announced in March, a senior official told The Indian Express. “Most of the problem is over now ever since the rescue flights have started operating,” said the official, adding, “still, we are keeping the website live till the duration of the lockdown in case any new international visitor wants to register their grievance”.
However, sources said, there are many others who are still stranded in various parts of the country. According to the Ministry of Tourism, “Around a thousand international visitors are confined to their hotel rooms since they could not afford the rescue flights, which were quite expensive.”
But the officials added that the government was ensuring they don’t suffer on account of essential supplies or medical care.
Also, said the Ministry sources, there are several others who have chosen to stay back in India, mostly in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Kerala, since they are considered safe from COVID-19 spread”. There have been cases where foreigners have expressed a desire to extend their stay since their own countries are worse-affected.
They shared the case of British national Sharon Chawda, who wrote: “I wanted to know what should I do to extend my stay period for a few months. I feel India is safe for me as the virus in UK is spreading very rapidly.” The portal has also received a query from a Russian national who is keen to travel to India.
Many foreign nationals, especially those from countries like USA, Australia and Germany have asked for an extension in their visas; some of these have been staying in places like Rishikesh and Vrindavan for years on extended visas. The Ministry of Home Affairs had extended their visas till May 3, even though officials say their visas will remain valid through the duration of the lockdown in India.
However, as per officials, further visa extension depends on a case-to-case basis and the visa is extended after viewing the reason and requirement of an individual’s stay in India.
On March 31, the government had launched a portal for such visitors — strandedinindia.com — aiming to identify, assist and facilitate foreign tourists in trouble in the country. As per a statement by the Ministry of Tourism, more than 1,200 foreigners registered their grievances on the website in the first 10 days.
Their concerns vary from expired visas; help with curfew permits to travel to airports to take rescue flight; any information on the scheduled flight operations, or rescue flights. Some of them are also seeking help about their depleting medicine stocks or help with food supply. For this, the government collaborated with the state officials. Emergency requests like need for food, medicine and care for elderly tourists were also catered to.
The portal ]also helped the Indian authorities to keep a tab on the movement of foreign nationals. For instance, lists of passengers from countries which were COVID-19 hotspots have been circulated to the regional offices. They were asked to track and monitor their movement and hotels were advised to take safety measures as per the advisory of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for separation and quarantine of the susceptible individuals.