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Local people go for a stroll in Shimla, India. Foreign tourists will be allowed to visit India from October 15. Photo: Getty Images

Taj Mahal, Rajasthan desert palaces and more reopen to tourists from overseas in October as India looks to revive tourist industry

  • Tourists from overseas will be able to visit India from October 15 – for the first time since March 2020 when the country went into a strict lockdown
  • The move follows a tentative reopening in recent months to travellers on business, diplomatic and student visas. Visitors must follow Covid-19 protocols

India will reopen for tourists from October 15 after being closed for more than a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, the government said.

The country famous for the Taj Mahal, the desert palaces of Rajasthan, tiger reserves, elephants and beaches had barred all foreign tourists in March 2020 in a strict lockdown when the pandemic took off. But after a horrendous spike in Covid-19 cases earlier this year, the number of cases has since fallen sharply and the government, under pressure from an industry that is an important pillar of the economy, has announced a loosening.

Tourist visas will be granted for foreigners arriving on charter flights from October 15, and on other flights from November 15, the home ministry said. It stressed that all Covid-19 protocols “should be adhered to by the foreign tourists, carriers bringing them into India and all other stakeholders at landing stations”.

India initially banned all foreigner arrivals. The restrictions were gradually eased for businesspeople, diplomats, students and others but borders remained shut for holidaymakers.

Tourists visit Anjuna beach in Goa, India, in 2018. Photo: Getty Images

In April and May this year, the country of 1.3 billion people was hit by a severe wave of coronavirus infections, with about 400,000 cases and 4,000 deaths every day. Hospitals were overwhelmed as more than 200,000 people died in a period of around 10 weeks, according to official numbers that are widely seen as an underestimate.

The spike was blamed on new virus variants and the government having lifted restrictions too soon and allowed sporting events and major celebrations for religious festivals to take place. But cases have since slowed sharply to around 20,000 new daily infections and 200 to 300 deaths in recent weeks.

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More than 250 million people have been double-vaccinated, although this equates to only around 20 per cent of the population, and experts warn that India could suffer another wave.

Tourism is beginning to pick up in Europe and the Americas, with some 54 million tourists crossing international borders in July, the most since April 2020, the World Tourism Organisation said on Monday.

That was up 58 per cent compared with the level recorded in July 2020, but was still a drop of 67 per cent from July 2019. International arrivals were down 80 per cent in January-July compared with the same period in 2019.

The UN body said it was expecting to see a “rebound” in 2022, although global tourism is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2023 or 2024. Elsewhere in Asia, the picture is mixed, with China and Japan still off-limits to foreign tourists.

Patong beach in Phuket, Thailand. Photo: Getty Images

But Indonesia on Monday announced that the resort island of Bali would open to select international travellers next week, while Thailand on Saturday said that fully vaccinated travellers from any country can now book holidays to tourism haven Phuket.

The Maldives has been open – with some suspensions – for tourists since July 2020. Sri Lanka opened to fully vaccinated tourists last month.

The Indian economy suffered one of the sharpest slumps among major economies as a result of the pandemic, with output suffering its worst drop since independence, pushing millions back into poverty. The initial lockdown last March in particular was a catastrophe, leaving tens of millions of workers in the informal economy without work almost overnight.

Hulhumale beach in the Maldives. Photo: Getty Images

Tourism is an important sector for Asia’s third-largest economy, with the country seeing 10.93 million tourist arrivals in 2019, according to the government. Before the pandemic, the sector accounted for about 10 per cent of the Indian economy.

Rajiv Mehra, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators, welcomed Thursday’s announcement. “This is a very encouraging for the tourism industry and we hope the inbound tourism would start to some extent and will give sigh of relief to the tourism industry stakeholders,” Mehra said.