India will drop travel restrictions and restart international flights after a two-year ban

March 9, 2022, 7:09 AM UTC

India will resume international flights as of March 27 after a two-year ban, brightening the outlook for the tourism industry that was disappointed by a government order earlier this month to extend the ban indefinitely despite a sharp drop in the nation’s daily COVID cases.

“After deliberation with stakeholders and keeping in view the decline in the COVID-19 caseload, we have decided to resume international travel from March 27 onwards,” India’s civil aviation minister Jyotiraditya M. Scindia tweeted late Tuesday.

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

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.

The air bubble arrangements will disband once regular flights resume on March 27, Scindia said.

The Indian government did not say what caused it to reverse its decision earlier this month to extend the ban, but the upcoming summer travel season likely played a role.

“We are glad that India has finally decided to resume international flights after 24 months. It will bring in optimism about revival of business for both inbound and outbound tourism,” says Ashish Gupta, chief executive officer of the Federation of Associations of Indian Tourism and Hospitality.

The government has yet to issue detailed guidelines for travelers entering the country after March 27. Industry officials say the government may impose restrictions on arrivals from countries with high COVID infections. Travelers in the air bubble did not have to quarantine when they arrived, and in February the government removed the requirement for people to undertake a mandatory COVID test 72 hours before flying.

Restarting international flights will mean that airlines and tour operators can capitalize on the busy April to June period, when schools and colleges are on summer break and Indians often travel overseas.

Tourism accounts for around 9% of India’s GDP, and the sector is one of the largest employers. Before the pandemic, India earned around $30 billion annually from foreign travelers visiting the country.

Thailand, Singapore, and several European nations have eased travel restrictions that were imposed after initial Omicron outbreaks at the end of last year. 

“The government decision will not only give everybody a greater choice for international travel, but will also bring down ticket prices considerably,” says Rajeev Kohli, managing director at Creative Travel and a member of the tourism committee at the Confederation of Indian Industry.

Prices for the limited number of air bubble flights had skyrocketed to three times as high as pre-pandemic fares. The cost of flights may not return to normal levels immediately owing to crude prices reaching a 14-year high of $140 per barrel on Monday in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It feels literally like taking one step forward and then another back,” says Kohli. “But from an Indian perspective, international flights resumption is still tremendous news.”

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