While the Covid-19 pandemic has affected all sectors of the economy, the travel and tourism (T&T) sector is among those expected to suffer the most prolonged impact. Owing to restrictions on free and confident movement of people, the tourism ecosystem, which employs 300 million people globally, has been disrupted. However, the pandemic provides an opportunity for India to take the lead in promoting regional tourism, an important metric of soft power.
In South Asia, tourism was one of the fastest-growing sectors in the last decade, with double-digit growth leading to a contribution of $234 billion or 6.6% of the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2019. However, according to the World Bank estimates, South Asia’s T&T sector has lost more than 10 million jobs and is further expected to incur losses of over $50 billion in GDP. This makes the countries most economically dependent on tourism, such as Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka, particularly vulnerable.
In our recent study, Travel South Asia: India’s Tourism Connectivity with the Region, we examined the pre-pandemic trends in intra-regional tourism. Between 2015 and 2018, approximately one-third of all foreign tourist arrivals in India were from South Asia. The top four tourism export countries for India in the region included Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Afghanistan. The report also highlights that the total number of Chinese tourist arrivals in the region has increased by almost ten-fold in the last decade, with a 2,486% rise in Sri Lanka, 687% in the Maldives and 462% in Nepal. As a result, the gap between the total number of Indian and Chinese tourists in the region had been narrowing.
Post-pandemic, inter-regional mobility will remain limited due to reduced air connectivity, high costs, and a lack of willingness to travel long distances. Governments are thus adopting a phased recovery approach. For instance, on June 15, the European Union launched the Re-open EU platform to provide a stimulus to tourism within Europe. India must take similar steps to build a resilient tourism sector within South Asia.
Visa barriers remain an obstacle to regional tourism, and India needs to revisit its rules to enhance openness. In our study, we developed an index to measure intra-regional tourism openness. It shows that Bhutan, Maldives, and Sri Lanka have the most liberal tourist visa policies towards citizens of the other South Asian countries. India ranks fifth in travel openness towards South Asia, with only Nepal, Bhutan, and Maldives eligible for visa-free travel to India.
Other measures such as liberalisation of travel agreements have also been successful in increasing tourism connectivity. For instance, India liberalised the Revised Travel Arrangement (RTA) with Bangladesh in 2013 and 2018. This led to an 80% increase in tourist arrivals from Bangladesh in 2014. By 2018, one in every four tourists from South Asia arriving in India was from Bangladesh. Further research suggests that as a result of this liberalisation, a number of informal movements across the India-Bangladesh border were converted to formal crossings. This can be replicated in the neighbourhood.
The pandemic has brought to fore the merits of digitisation, especially as a means of reducing human transactions. Investing in digitisation of various services will be crucial for revival of the industry. This requires participation from public and private sector stakeholders to enhance secure travel. Similarly, enhancement of digital infrastructure at the borders will be of prime importance. Registering all cross-border movements, particularly from Nepal and Bhutan, via land will be important to keep track of tourists. India should also leverage the region’s enormous cultural assets and religious heritage to revive intra-regional tourism flows.