Two years after international travel was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Union government has decided to restore all categories of tourist visas for foreign nationals and also issue fresh visas with immediate effect.
The government has already decided to allow regular international flight operations, which were suspended since 23 March, 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, from 27 March.
An order issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Tuesday (15 March) said it has considered the need for further relaxation of visa and travel restrictions keeping in view the improvement in the Covid-19 situation in India.
"Currently valid e-tourist visas issued for five years shall stand restored to nationals of 156 countries with immediate effect," the ministry said.
Fresh five-year e-tourist visas to nationals of these 156 countries will also be issued, it added.
"The regular paper tourist visa, which has a validity of five years and is issued to nationals of all the countries, has also been restored. Similarly, the long duration (10-year) regular tourist visa to the citizens of the United States and Japan has also been restored and new ones will be issued with immediate effect."
All these visas were suspended in March 2020, when regular international flights were stopped after the outbreak of Covid-19.
In October 2020, India started the process of a graded relaxation in visa and travel restrictions for foreign and Indian nationals, who wanted to come to India for business, conferences, employment, studies and research –but tourist visas remained suspended.
They were opened for the first time in 18 months on 15 November last year, but only for travel in chartered flights.
Several states, including Goa, as well as stakeholders in the tourism sector wrote to MHA seeking regular tourist visas.
"The decision to allow all tourists has been taken after discussion with the ministries of civil aviation, tourism, health, external affairs and the state governments as the number of Covid-19 cases in the country is below 3,000 per day," MHA said.
Union tourism minister G Kishan Reddy informed parliament on Monday that 21.5 million people involved in the tourism industry lost their jobs during the three Covid-19 waves. Tuesday's order, which has been shared with Indian embassies abroad, said foreign nationals on tourist/e-tourist visas may enter India only through designated sea immigration check posts (ICPs) or airports by flights, including those under Vande Bharat mission or "air bubble" or by any other flights.
It added that they will not be allowed to enter the country through land border or riverine routes on tourist visas. A separate order will be issued for opening of land borders soon said an official who asked not to be named.
The latest order will not apply to Afghan nationals, who, the ministry said, will continue to be governed separately through e-Emergency X-Misc visa. This new category of visa for Afghan nationals was introduced in August last year as thousands of Afghan nationals fled the country and seek refuge in other countries, including India, following the Taliban's ascent to power in August.
There are 21 categories of visas given by India with various sub-categories, including tourist visa, medical visa, business visa, conference visa, student and research visa, missionary visa, film visa, journalist visa, sports visa, intern visa and all have been restored.
"All categories of visas are now allowed to travel to India," said an MHA official requesting anonymity.
Rajiv Mehra, president, Indian Association of Tour Operators welcomed the decision. "This is a big relief for the entire travel and tourism fraternity and we hope that it will create confidence among foreign tourist that India is now safe to travel and they can visit India without any hassles. We also hail restoration of all types of visas, which include five-year visas for all eligible countries and 10-year long visas for (tourists from) US and Japan".
A senior official from the civil aviation ministry said the move would "boost the travel and aviation sector at large."