India's coronavirus visa ban plunges tourism sector into crisis

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Indian hotels and travel operators warned on Thursday their industry would suffer an unprecedented hit from the government’s decision to issue no visas for foreign visitors in order to combat the spread of coronavirus.

With just 73 confirmed cases of the virus and no deaths, India, a country of 1.3 billion people, has got off lightly so far compared to elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America.

But experts fear that its overstretched medical systems would struggle to handle the type of intensive care required if there were a spike in infections.

New Delhi said late on Wednesday it will cancel almost all visas issued for travel to the country until April 15, in one of the most far-reaching attempts to stop the virus spreading.

Millions of people work in the tourist sector, and while domestic tourism is big in India it also welcomes around 10 million foreign tourists annually, according to government data.

Many head for the forts and palaces in the desert state of Rajasthan, where some of the first cases of coronavirus in the country were reported last month among a group of Italian tourists.

Rachna Singh, CEO of the Federation of Hospitality and Tourism of Rajasthan, said most of those who had booked to come next month had abandoned their plans.

“Everything has been canceled,” she said, adding that four in ten people in the state rely in some way on tourism.

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.

“All our members are suffering at the moment,” Gupta said. “No one has any business at all – inbound, outbound or domestic.”

Sooraj Nair, director of the five-star Crowne Plaza hotel in Kochi, a historic southern city famed for its spices, said occupancy has slumped to 20 percent, and that the visa ban will cause a crisis in the hospitality industry if it continues for several months.

Government and industry sources told Reuters on Thursday they anticipated a sharp decline in economic growth for at least two quarters.

Share prices of Indian airlines also slumped on Thursday, as the travel ban prompted massive ticket discounting in an already slumping air travel market.

Sporting events across the world have already been impacted, and on Thursday cricket, a national obsession in India, became a casualty as India’s sports secretary said he wanted the national team’s upcoming matches to be played in empty stadiums.

The chief ministers of two states where India is due to play South Africa later this month have been told the matches can go-ahead without spectators, RS Jhulaniya told Reuters.

The Indian Premier League, the country’s premier domestic cricket competition is due to start later this month, but the chairman of its governing council, Brijesh Patel, said a meeting would be held on Saturday to discuss “all possibilities” regarding the tournament, including visa issues for overseas players and the eventuality of playing in empty stadiums.

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