India is reopening its borders to international visitors in a bid to revive economic growth even as the South Asian nation battles the world's second-worst coronavirus outbreak.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using a dip in new Covid-19 infections to prise open the economy from a strict lockdown, welcoming foreigners on business trips, but not tourists.
While regular scheduled commercial flights remain off limits for the time being, overseas travelers can use other options, including flights under a government repatriation program, so-called air-bubble agreements, and private charters, the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement Thursday. Ships will also be permitted. All travelers must "strictly adhere" to the guidelines on quarantine and other rules.
The surprise decision comes after the number of daily infections in India dropped to around 55,000 versus almost 100,000 last month. A government panel of scientists said this week the nation may have seen a peak in new infections and could contain the outbreak by February. But critics have attributed that decline to lower rates of testing as the disease spreads to the country's vast hinterland.
All existing visas -- except electronic, tourist and medical ones -- will be restored immediately, the government said. People holding expired visas can apply again and foreigners wishing to visit for business, conferences, work, study, research or medical reasons will be allowed to apply, the government said.
India may not be alone in welcoming foreigners amid a worsening outbreak. Indonesia, Southeast Asia's largest economy and the nation with that region's worst outbreak, is also considering reopening borders, Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said in a Thursday briefing.
Indonesia reported 4,432 new cases in the 24 hours through midday Thursday, the most since Oct. 11, bringing the total to 377,541.
India has extended a government repatriation program to allow private carriers including InterGlobe Aviation Ltd.'s IndiGo and SpiceJet Ltd. to operate such flights with special permission. The nation has also struck air-bubble agreements with 18 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Germany, Afghanistan and Canada.
India's lockdown at the end of March was the world's largest and one of its most severe, causing the economy to contract about 24% in the quarter ended June from a year earlier as businesses and jobs were demolished. Once restrictions were eased, authorities struggled to get the pandemic under control with the number of infections now second only to the U.S.
India has also been allowing local airlines to fly a limited schedule since May. But most carriers failed to fill even 70% of their seats last month as passengers remained wary about catching the deadly virus. PM Modi's administration has set aside about 500 billion rupees ($7 billion) to vaccinate the world's most populous nation after China, Bloomberg News reported Thursday.