Many countries are lifting international travel restrictions. India just extended its ban indefinitely

India on Wednesday extended a ban on international flights indefinitely despite a sharp drop in its daily COVID cases, disappointing the tourism industry that was expecting the government to welcome foreign travelers back this month after two years of restrictions.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation said the “competent authority has decided to extend the suspension of scheduled international flights till further orders,” without elaborating on the reasons for the decision.  

“It was rather unexpected. We have been constantly following up with the government to open up the flights,” Ashish Gupta, chief executive officer of the Federation of Associations in Indian Tourism and Hospitality, said in an interview. “I expect we should see a quick revisit of the decision.”

In early December, the Indian government deferred a plan to resume international flights on Dec. 15, following the emergence of the highly transmissible Omicron COVID variant. India has effectively closed its borders to most international travelers since March 2020.  

The December order killed the tourism industry’s hope of capitalizing on peak international travel during the Christmas and New Year holidays. The Wednesday decision to indefinitely delay the reopening of India’s borders could mean that airlines and tour operators miss out on revenue from Indian travelers who would normally travel overseas during the April to June period when schools and colleges have their summer break, Gupta says. 

Tourism accounts for around 9% of India’s GDP, and the sector is one of the country’s largest employers. Before the pandemic, India earned around $30 billion annually from foreign travelers visiting the country. Nearly 17 million travelers entered India in the financial year that ended March 2020, and around 27 million Indians traveled to international destinations during the same period. 

India’s decision bucks a trend of more tourism hotspots opening up. 

Thailand, Singapore, the Maldives, as well as several European nations have eased travel restrictions that were imposed after initial Omicron outbreaks late last year.

Since its first lockdown in March 2020, India has only allowed flights from 36 countries under an air-bubble pact that serves fliers with special circumstances, such as Indian nationals stranded overseas or foreign nationals holding medical visas. Travelers within the bubble can enter India so long as they are fully vaccinated and test negative for COVID within 72 hours of their flight. 

When India postponed its border reopening in December, it cited the threat of Omicron. But the risk the COVID variant poses to India’s precarious health care system is easing. The number of daily COVID cases in India dropped to 7,554 on Wednesday, compared with a peak of 347,254 cases on Jan. 20. 

“Colleges, schools, cinema theaters, and even restaurants are now being opened up across India. There is no reason for India to not open up international flights now that the third wave of COVID has nearly finished,” says Subhash Goyal, president of the Confederation of Tourism Professionals.   

Ticket prices for the limited number of flights in the air bubbles are triple what similar flights cost pre-pandemic, Goyal says. He argues that India easily could resume regular international flights with safety protocols such as testing for COVID prior to arrival in the country. 

Some tourism industry officials expect the Indian government to lift the flight ban later this month, though authorities have not yet announced a date. 

“I think they have probably not been able to announce a date yet because of administrative reasons,” says Rajeev Kohli, managing director at Creative Travel and a member of the tourism committee at the Confederation of Indian Industry. 

Globally, the outlook for travel has dimmed now that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has altered flight routes and created fresh uncertainty, especially across Europe. 

“There will definitely be hesitancy in Europe,” says Kohli. “Maybe we can take advantage of that given India’s geographic location.”

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