In one of most extreme measures taken by any government in response to virus outbreak, India suspends all visas effective from Friday, with only some exemptions for diplomats and workers.
The Indian government has moved to drastically limit the number of people it allows to enter the country, suspending visas for visitors from all other countries for at least a month in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure, one of the most far-reaching responses by any government to the Covid-19 outbreak yet, effectively bans all tourism to India until at least 15 April. It will be enforced from Friday onwards.
The announcement came as India’s number of coronavirus cases rose to 72 on Thursday, and amid mounting concerns that the country’s beleaguered health system and densely populated cities would make it extremely difficult to contain a fully fledged outbreak.
While announcing the travel ban, the health ministry said that “all Indian nationals are strongly advised to avoid all non-essential travel abroad”, warning they could be subject to a 14-day quarantine upon their return. “Indian nationals presently abroad are advised to avoid non-essential travel,” the notice added.
And in the southern state of Karnataka, officials invoked 123-year-old legislation to announce that any person who refuses hospital treatment or violates their quarantine will be prosecuted.
The warning over the provision under the 1897 Epidemic Diseases Act, brought in by the occupying British administration to tackle the plague, came after a passenger who presented with a fever after arriving in the state from Dubai ran away a government hospital.
The health ministry said the travel ban came with some exceptions – those with diplomatic and long-term employment visas for India will still be allowed into the country, and foreigners already inside the country will mostly be unaffected.
But tourists who have already had visas issued for upcoming travel to India should consider them suspended, and even foreigners of Indian origin – who would normally enjoy visa-free travel under the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) scheme – will also be barred entry.
Even those with certain categories of long-term, multiple-entry visa will be barred from entering the country, or have their visas suspended if they leave from Friday onwards. A foreign ministry source confirmed this would include foreign journalists based in India.
Travellers with a “compelling reason” to come to India should contact their nearest Indian mission, the advisory said.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the country’s sports secretary said the national obsession of cricket may too fall victim to anti-virus measures, with plans being put in place for the national team’s upcoming matches to be played in empty stadiums.
The chief ministers of two states where India is due to play matches against South Africa this month “have been advised to avoid gathering of people,” RS Jhulaniya told the Reuters news agency. “Matches may go on without spectator crowd”.
Brijesh Patel, governing council chairman of the Indian Premier League which was due to start its season later this month, said the organisation would meet on Saturday to discuss “all possibilities” regarding the tournament, including visas issues for overseas players and the possibility of playing matches in empty stadiums.
Tourist and business travel has already dipped sharply this year, but the visa ban will take activity to an “all time low”, according to Chetan Gupta, general secretary of the Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India.
As one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, millions of people in the country rely on tourism for employment. Around 10 million foreign tourists visit the country each year, according to government data.
“All our members are suffering at the moment,” Gupta said. “No one has any business at all – inbound, outbound or domestic.”