If you feel all your friends and others you know suddenly seem to be travelling abroad, you’re not mistaken. This year more Indians have travelled abroad than ever before. Outbound travel is poised to reach $42 billion by 2024.
However, the same cannot be said for inbound travel by foreign tourists. While several media reports said that travel to India by foreign tourists had risen by 106% during January-June compared to the same period last year, a study Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) found that numbers were yet to hit pre-Covid levels. According to the report the number of foreign tourists arriving in India shrunk by 19.7% compared to August 2019.
September data, the most recently available, on the website of the Ministry of Tourism showed that the trend continued. It read, “FTAs (foreign tourist arrivals)during the period January- September, 2023 were 64,32,269 as compared to 39,78,105 in January-September 2022 and 76,66,500 in January-September, 2019 registering a growth of 61.7% and -16.1% with respect to 2022 and 2019 respectively.”
While the men's cricket World Cup is said to have boosted the numbers, it’s not clear whether they reached pre-Covid levels.
Sushil Aggrawal, vice president of Riya Travels, quoting numbers from the Ministry of Tourism, said, “Between January and March 2019, 31.8 lakh inbound tourists visited India. This year stands at 25 lakhs in the same months. However, this is a marked increase from 8 lakh tourists who visited India in 2022”.
Travel agents across cities said there was a 20-30% decline in inbound tourism, as outbound and domestic tourism grew manifold. “Despite visa challenges, we’ve seen outbound tourism growing at a rate of 20%,” Aggrawal said.
Travel industry stakeholders pointed to several reasons that were causing fewer foreign tourists to come to India. But a reason that came up repeatedly was the need for more ease of visa procurement and extension. Reji Philip of Mumbai-based Cosmos Travels said that the e-visa process for India, unlike countries like Sri Lanka, was quite complex. “There is a lot of documentation required and a lot of red tape. Visas do come in three to five days, but sometimes people get no response at all, not even a denial of visa,” he said.
Foreign tourists, especially backpackers, have flocked to India for years. Often, they come without planned itineraries and want to extend their stay. But the Indian visa process makes it quite complicated.
A hostel owner in Goa, who did not want to be named, said, “I had an international tourist visiting the hostel who applied for a visa extension. It took him visits to various police stations and three weeks for the visa to get extended and that meant staying in the same place for that period.”
However, the hostel owner said that the free one-month visas offered by India after the pandemic boosted the number of foreign nationals arrivals. “Last year was an exceptionally good season from September onwards. A lot of international travellers had come even before the season began. This year has not been great with foreign tourists,” he said.
Visa extensions aren’t the only problem.
Philip said that visa extensions are difficult even in tourist-friendly countries like Dubai, and require a security clearance. “But, the initial visa process can be made much easier,” he said.
Nearby countries like Sri Lanka and Thailand have easy on-arrival visa policies. Both countries have seen an uptick in tourism and have outdone their pre-pandemic numbers.
There are other factors like infrastructure, domestic connectivity, and hygiene that foreign tourists are concerned with. “People lack the confidence to travel to India with reports of political instability and religious intolerance. Hospitality and cleanliness are other factors that add to this problem,” Philip said. He added that infrastructure to support tourism like better domestic connectivity, clean public toilets, and parking facilities could help attract more tourists.
Aggrawal tells us that while some problems have always existed, they’ve come to the fore after Covid-19. “People have become more hygiene-sensitive now. Singapore, Thailand and Dubai are all better in these aspects,” he said, adding that Delhi’s struggle with air pollution was also becoming a deterrent for foreign tourists.
The Indian government also decided to wrap all its Overseas India Tourism Offices by March 31, 2023. Subhash Goyal, chairman of STIC Travel Group and Indian Chamber of Commerce/FIEO, Aviation & Tourism Expert Committee said, “Indian embassies are unable to market tourism the same way and aren’t easy to walk into.”
He also said that the reduced number of flights and higher airfares were also reasons behind India not catching up to pre-COVID foreign tourist arrival numbers.
Who’s Visiting And Who Isn’t?
In the post-Covid world, the countries foreign tourists are visiting India from have also changed because of a range of factors. “The number of Italian tourists has come down. We used to have senior citizens from Italy visit, and they haven’t come back after the pandemic. Numbers from the UK (United Kingdom) are down, too. Tourism from neighbouring countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka has gone up,” said Aggrawal, adding that the cricket World Cup was an impetus, with hotel fares going up as much as 200%.
Travel in small groups has become more popular than larger group tours, which was the case before the pandemic, said Susanta Chakraborty of Delhi-based Express Solutions.
There has also been a decline in the number of solo foreign travellers.
Where Are The Tourists Headed?
Kashmir has come in high demand as a tourist destination, while Goa still holds its popularity. Philip said, “People are traveling to the Statue of Unity. There are takers for destinations like Mysore and Puducherry, too. The North Eastern states, despite the disturbances in Manipur, are high in demand.”
The “golden triangle” of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra in the north continues to be popular, while in the south people showed interest in the beach-side destination of Kovalam, in Kerala.
Aggrawal said, “New Delhi continues to get the largest number of foreign arrivals, at 31% of the total.”
There are tourists from certain countries who only visit certain parts of India. Aggrawal said that Gaya remained “popular among Southeast Asian tourists who want to do the Buddhist circuit. Italians are interested in the Khajuraho temples”.
Most tourists, travel agents report, are keen on exploring new destinations on their second visit to India once they have covered the Golden Triangle.
All numeric markers point to the fact that while inbound tourism may have improved in the past year, it still hasn’t recovered from the blow delivered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Chakraborty believes that India will recover, and likely breach pre-pandemic tourism numbers in the next one or two years. Aggrawal thinks it may come as early as the next financial year.
“The Vande Bharat trains are a step in the right direction. They are cleaner, even if they are more expensive. More trains and better tourist-friendly timings may help bring in visitors,” Aggrawal said, adding that marketing can have a big role to play, too. “Westerners don’t get nearly enough sunshine in their countries. We have the sun blazing down on us through the year. We don’t market it enough,” he said.
While countries like Vietnam have benefited from marketing and direct flights, it may help India too.
Goyal said, “Post-Covid, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, tourists weren’t keen on travelling to Europe. China wasn’t a popular destination either after the outbreak. It would have been a golden opportunity for India, one that we missed.”