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Visa rules relaxed to attract tourists

New Delhi, Oct. 25: In a bid to boost tourism, India has considerably relaxed its existing visa regime. Foreign tourists can now visit the country for a brief period even without visas. But unfortunately, the offer is not open to most of its South Asian neighbours.

“Landing permit may be granted to a foreigner transiting through India without visa provided he/she has confirmed onward journey ticket,” a government circular issued recently said. It added: “Landing permit may be granted for a period up to 72 hours or till the departure of the confirmed onward journey flight for which he is in possession of the ticket at the time of reporting to the immigration, whichever is earlier.”

All this will come for a fee of $40.

While extending these facilities, the passport of the foreign traveller will be “retained” by the immigration officer, who will issue a receipt to the visitor to “facilitate” his/her movement out of the airport, port or post.

But the offer is not extended to nationals of eight countries, including three neighbours — Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The other five are Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The circular comes at a time when India and Sri Lanka are trying to jointly boost tourism and enhance people-to-people contact. After a recent meeting with visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced regular flights between Colombo and all major Indian cities. He even asked private airlines operating in India to extend their services to Sri Lanka.

The restriction on Pakistani nationals also goes contrary to Delhi’s argument for the need to strengthen people-to-people contact between the two countries. The same thing could be said about Bangladesh — a country with which India is keen to improve and deepen relations.

Officials reasoned that the facilities have not been extended to nationals of the eight countries as they would find it easier to take advantage of the liberal visa regime and melt away in India.

“This is primarily done to boost tourism, not to encourage the influx of refugees or unauthorised visitors to the country,” a senior official said.

India’s stress of encouraging tourists can be seen from the fact that copies of the circular are not restricted to Delhi, but have been issued to the states as well.

The new rules also apply to foreigners who arrive in India on “emergency situations” and are without a visa. To cope with such situations, immigration officers have been asked to allow them to stay in India for a period of up to 15 days. If the visitor wants to stay beyond that period, he could get it extended by a special permission from the home ministry.

The extent of visa rules’ liberalisation is clear from the fact that even those on whose passport a “technical lapse has been detected or where the visa number has not been mentioned” may be allowed to come in if the immigration officer is satisfied that the visitor was “not at fault”.

For stateless persons who arrive in India without a proper passport and are only in possession of their travel document and identity certificates, the assistant commissioner of police on duty at the airport has been asked to check the “genuineness of the documents” before clearing immigration.

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