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26/11 visa curbs eased

New Delhi, Nov. 22: The home ministry has relaxed tourist visa rules tightened in the wake of the Mumbai attacks after a drop in the visitor count blamed on the restrictions.

According to rules in force since 2009, no person holding a tourist visa could return to India within two months of a visit. This two-month restriction has now been removed.

Tourism secretary Parvez Dewan confirmed the change. “Formal orders from the home ministry came yesterday. It is a great relief because it (the restriction) was eating into our market. Instead of India, Nepal had become the base for tourists coming to our region,” the official said.

Even tourists with long-term visas of 5-10 years could not return within two months of the last exit, unless they had special permission that was given only in emergencies like death or illness in the family.

The rules were tightened following the revelation that David Coleman Headley, a 26/11 suspect, had used a multi-entry tourist visa to visit India five times to conduct a recce for the attacks for the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The trips were made between September 2006 and July 2008, just four months before the strike.

The relaxation follows discussions between the home and tourism ministries, and comes within a month of Chiranjeevi being made tourism minister.

“Based on one incident, you cannot amend rules unless there is a persistent trend. This is what we told them (home ministry). We were losing a huge amount of foreign exchange because of the rules,” a tourism ministry official said.

The home ministry also insisted that tourist visas be strictly used for recreation and sightseeing. It asked Indian missions to ensure appropriate visas were sought for other purposes.

The US and UK had protested the rules. According to the tourism ministry, 11 lakh tourists come from the US and Canada alone each year. That is 20 per cent of the estimated 55 lakh foreign visitors. “Because of the change, we were losing about 60,000 tourists every year,” the official said.

Shashi Tharoor, then minister of state for external affairs, had also questioned the home ministry’s curbs. “Issue is not security Vs tourism but whether visa restrictions protect our security. 26/11 killers had no visas,” Tharoor had tweeted.

Before 2009, tourists made India their base and travel to Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and other countries, the official said.