India is set to roll out the red carpet for foreign tourists. The government on Monday cleared a slew of measures including extending visa on arrival (VoA) to 40 countries, establishing an online application system for visas and facilitating visa on arrival for pensioners and those attending conferences.
The decision means foreign tourists will be able to apply for an Indian visa from the comfort of their homes while citizens from 40 countries including the US, the UK, Germany, France, Brazil, Russia and China among others will avail visa on arrival when they land on Indian shores. The government has also agreed to extend visa on arrival to foreign travelers above 60 years of age from all countries and cut down the time taken to give visas to groups that are keen to attend conventions.
"There has to be a change in mindset towards the way we treat foreign tourists. All representatives of government agreed on extending visa on arrival to 40 countries and initiating an online system as soon as possible," planning minister Rajeev Shukla said.
The ministries of tourism and home affairs have been tasked with preparing a roadmap since initiating the visa on arrival scheme will require a large amount of infrastructure and manpower. So far, citizens of around 11 countries including Japan, New Zealand and Vietnam can avail visa on arrival.
The government is closely reviewing the online application systems adopted by Sri Lanka where only electronic visas are issued for tourists on short visits.
A consensus was reached on these issues during a high level meeting convened here on Monday by the Planning Commission.
"We want to develop a world class visa regime. I am going to write to the home minister with the outcomes of the meeting aimed at liberalizing the visa regime," Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia told TOI.
The meeting included the national security advisor, Ahluwalia, representatives from the PMO, Intelligence Bureau, and ministries of external affairs, home and tourism.
"There was broad consensus on simplifying online visa system, relaxing visa regime for all types of conferences and senior citizen foreign tourist or foreign pensioners," Shukla said.
According to the minister, there are many senior citizens, including pensioners, who want to visit India. The government has decided to relax visa norms for a group of four such foreign tourists. But that decision has not been implemented so far. The home ministry was of the view that visa on arrival could be expanded to include more countries, but there is shortage of staff.
"Tourism ministry was willing to share its budget with the home ministry so that more officers can be posted on immigration counters that could facilitate visa on arrival," Ahluwalia said.
Another suggestion was to bring down the number of categories of visas from the existing 16 to just three -- employment, business and visitor.
It was also decided that visa on arrival visa facility would be extended to more airports like Goa, Gaya, Chandigarh and Amritsar which have a large flow of foreign tourists.
At present, visa on arrival facility is available at international airports of Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, Kochi, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram.
The move has been initiated after growing realization that the tourism sector can act as a bridge in the current account deficit crisis that India is facing. During 2012-13, CAD was at an all-time high of 4.8% of GDP or $88.2 billion. Government proposes to bring it down to $70 billion or 3.8% of GDP.
According to sources, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi had also discussed the issue with top officials of ministries like tourism for relaxing visa norms for more countries.
In 2012, India received 6.58 million foreign tourists, up 4.3% over the previous year. India's foreign exchange earnings in 2012 from tourists were $17.74 billion, showing an increase of 7.1% year-on-year. However, the last few months have seen a dollarless growth.