It’s about time India simplified tourist visas for international travellers.
In a decision that involved prolonged negotiation between the tourism ministry, the Planning Commission and the national security establishment, India’s visa policy stands to be much simplified. Citizens of up to 180 countries will now get tourist visas on arrival, once the decision is announced, though they will have to fill an online application first.
While India has been gradually relaxing its policy with a few low-risk nations, this will now extend to big-spending, frequently vacationing nationalities. In January 2010, India added Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, New Zealand and Singapore to its visa on arrival list, and extended this a year later to include Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Laos and Myanmar. But security concerns have ostensibly held it back from flinging the gates open to more visitors, a policy that has hurt India’s tourism potential.
While it is true that Indian citizens travelling to many of these nations have to jump many hoops, it is also clear that holding out for strict reciprocity hurts Indian interests more. India’s tourism industry still depends on domestic travel and even though the numbers are growing, it is not a fraction of the revenue that could be generated from foreign tourism. In 2012, India got barely 0.64 per cent of the money spent by global tourists, a figure jarringly at odds with the abundance of places of interest in this country. It is clear from worldwide experience that visa policy makes all the difference to international travellers, apart from the natural, historical and cultural attractions of a country.
Thailand has far more tourists than India largely because its default assumption is open, not suspicious of strangers or hung up on strictly equal mutual benefits. The red tape of Russian tourism ensures that it receives far fewer tourists than neighbouring Baltic nations that actively invite visitors. In the ASEAN countries, only one in 10 citizens requires a visa. It is one of the most open regions of the world, and is now mulling a unified visa system along the lines of the European Schengen system. In other words, cutting through the thicket of visa procedures for tourists is a no-brainer.
While national security is a real concern, technology has now made it much easier to vet backgrounds and manage information. The important change must be to switch assumptions, to ease the experience of international visitors rather than keeping them out.