Passage to India gets Tougher

In a move that is inconveniencing thousands of India-bound travelers, not to mention those already here on holiday or work, New Delhi's tougher visa regime for all tourists spells trouble for almost everybody.

One of the new visa requirements, which may well carry diplomatic repercussions, obliges travelers on tourist visas for more than 90 days to take a mandatory two-month "time-out" before returning to the country. This is a marked departure from the previous rules under which tourists on five or 10-year visas were required to leave the country only after 180 days.

Earlier, to fulfill this requirement, most travelers would simply fly to a neighboring country such as Nepal or Sri Lanka for a brief stay before returning. Now, the visitors still face the 180-day deadline, but must stay away from the country for a two month "cooling off" period before they can re-enter.

The unexpected visa rule changes were prompted by revelations last month that Pakistani-American jihadi terrorist David Coleman Headley and his associate Tahawwur Rana had visited India on multiple-entry visas. The duo were arraigned in October in Chicago on charges of plotting an attack on India at the behest of the Pakistan-based terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba. Headley, who was born in the US and changed his name from Daood Sayed Gilani to hide his Muslim identity, has been charged by the FBI with scouting out the Mumbai attacks, which killed 160 and destroyed property worth billions in November 2008.

Expectedly, there were howls of protests from most countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom over New Delhi's drastic new visa rules. The US issued an advisory asking its citizens to review their travel plans to India. It even posted its tourists' visa-related complaints on its official website. Similarly, British Business Secretary Lord Peter Mandelson, who was in India at the time, met urgently with home minister P. Chidambaram to request him to "rethink" the country's visa policy.

Following international pressure, the Indian government agreed to relax its rules for "bona fide travelers", who after initial entry into India, will be allowed two or three entries on the same visa. Permission to re-enter, however, will only be granted on the submission of a detailed itinerary and supporting documents such as ticket bookings. This amendment will marginally ease pressure on foreigners who arrive in India on tourist visas and use the country as a base for travel to nearby nations.

Interestingly, the new visa rules will apply to anyone needing a visa to come to India, even to people of Indian origin. "The idea," as a foreign ministry official put it, "is also to deter people from using the Indian tourist visa as a business visa which was the case earlier."

The new rules will also have an impact upon the thousands of foreign nationals living in India on long-term tourist visas, acquired to bypass India's labyrinthine residency procedures.

Another segment that will be hit substantially by the new laws is medical tourism, which is poised to ratchet up to US$2 billion by 2012. The country's low cost of treatments, lax regulations governing in-vitro fertilization and assisted reproductive techniques and willing surrogates who rent out their wombs for a modest fee have spawned a US445 million fertility tourism business. All these areas will be hit negatively as such medical procedures require time, usually several months.

Tourism too will take a knock as complex visa rules will drive away foreign tourists. This would be a pity considering currently, the tourism industry is the largest in the services sector in India – more than 6 percent of the GDP, almost 9 percent of national employment and generated revenue of $100 billion in 2008.

Ironically, the clampdown comes at a time when the Indian government has introduced a visa-on-arrival scheme for arrivals from Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Luxembourg and Finland to bolster tourism. In fact the Indian tourism industry had even begun showing definite signs of revitalization after last year's Mumbai attack and a bruising economic crisis.

"We were hoping things would bounce back in the current festive season of Christmas and New year," sayid a Delhi-based travel agent. "But the new visa regulations have acted as a spanner in our works."

But as experts point out, though the denial of a visa to a potential terrorist may be the instinctive reaction of any government fighting international terrorism, it is a fundamentally flawed one. What was needed instead was a wider debate on the subject rather than a knee-jerk reaction.

In other words, what should bother the Indian authorities is not now Headley got his Indian visa but why his frequent shuttling between Pakistan and India did not raise the suspicions of the Indian immigration officials. Professional policing should have ensured that people like him didn't slip through the national security net and are stopped at the border. Instead, what is the government doing – it is trying to limit the number of trips a foreign visitor makes to India.

In other words, the key to spotting and tracking potential terrorists lies in training Indian Intelligence and Immigration and equipping them with the wherewithal to deal with such situations. No terrorist comes to India with a visa. In fact well-networked 'tourists' or 'businessmen' like Headley can easily procure fake supporting documentation to bypass the new rule. Ultimately, those who will get caught in the web of such obnoxious rules will be innocent commoners.

In this context, it may be more useful to focus on tightening existing procedures and establishing closer networking between various Indian consulates, government departments and foreign agencies.

The new rules also risk strengthening the common perception of India as an uncomfortable or unfriendly tourist destination. Besides, as travel experts point out, the new visa rules mandate considerable paperwork. Does the foreign office have enough manpower to deal with this increased paperwork? The issue, in other words, once again represents the tug of war between effective measures for countering terrorism and boosting tourism as tighter visa norms are fraught with the risk of putting off tourists.

More than 100,000 tourists apply for long-term visas each year, according to the Indian foreign ministry. Nationals from 14 countries are eligible for the long-term visas, greatly in demand by the US and British citizens who bypass the complicated process of acquiring a business or employment visa.

Meanwhile, India's feisty Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor has taken the visa debate to cyberspace. He has questioned on Twitter whether the restriction would actually strengthen security as the "26/11 killers had no visas".

Tharoor pointed out in his tweet on December 25 that tightening visa rules will discourage "tourism and goodwill"…Restrictive visa regulations can only hurt the image of our country and business," he said. "Issue is not security vs (versus) tourism, but whether visa restrictions protect our security."

Making it more difficult for visitors to return frequently or stay longer will only "cost us millions of $ (dollars)", he said. "Is all that worth it just in hope of making it difficult for a future Headley to recce? R we going 2 allow terrorists 2 make us less welcoming?" he asked. "The more restrictive we become, the tougher it will be for Indians to travel freely."

Tharoor's queries are indeed worth mulling over. While one can understand the Indian government's security concerns triggered by the Headley case, point is – will making travel painful for all foreigners provide the answer?