Britain and the US have lodged a diplomatic protest with India after the government in Delhi introduced rules barring tourists from returning to the country within two months of any visit.
The new visa rules, which also apply to other foreign nationals, are apparently a reaction to the arrest in the US of a Mumbai terror suspect, David Coleman Headley, who had entered India on a multiple-entry visa.
The British high commission in Delhi has urged the Indian government to rethink the policy, which is expected to hit tourists planning to use India as a base for touring the region.
It will also be a blow to thousands of Britons living in India on long-term tourist visas. Many foreigners living in India prefer to use tourist visas rather than go through the complicated process of trying to secure a visa that would grant them the right to residency.
Some apply for six-month tourist visas and then travel to nearby countries, such as Nepal, to renew them. Those on longer-term tourist visas ‑ for five or 10 years ‑ are also required to leave the country every 180 days and tend to fly out for a couple of days before returning. Under the new rules, that would no longer be an option.
Posts on internet travel forums suggest that some British tourists have already fallen foul of the rules and have found themselves stranded and unable to return to India after visiting neighbouring countries.
On the IndiaMike forum one poster, from London, described how he had been renting an apartment in Goa and had travelled to Nepal to apply for a new six-month tourist visa, only to be informed that he would not be allowed back in for two months.
“This is insane,” he wrote. “How can you introduce a rule without any prior warning and let ppl [sic] make plans and pay for flights etc and mess everything up for them … I now have no option but to get a transit visa and leg it back to Goa, get my stuff and leave … all this achieves is me and 1000’s of others having to cut their plans short and spend none of that cash into the system … Well done!!”
A spokesman for the British high commission said the high commissioner had written to protest. “We have discussed this matter with the government of India. As yet there is no real clarity over the details of the proposals or of how they might be implemented. We understand that the Indian government is reconsidering its plans. We shall keep a close eye on this as it develops because it has the potential to impact on a large number of British nationals.”
Details of the plans are yet to be published but reports in India suggested that people of Indian origin living in the UK will also be caught up in the rule change.
Many British passport holders with Indian origins use tourist visas to visit relatives in India rather than tackling the bureaucratic minefield involved in applying for a Person of Indian Origin card, which would allow them entry into the country. They will also be subject to the no return for two months rule.
The Indian government has apparently sought to defuse the row by giving consular officials the power to grant exemptions in exceptional cases, although there is as yet no clarity on how that might be applied.
British diplomatic sources also suggested the changes had alarmed some Indian companies with nationals working overseas, who feared that their business interests might be affected if other countries introduced reciprocal arrangements.
The decision, by India’s home ministry, comes after officials reviewed the case of Headley, who is under arrest in the US accused of scouting targets for terrorist attacks, including the Mumbai attacks last year which left 166 people dead.
He was found to have used a multiple entry business visa to make nine trips to India, during which time he is alleged to have visited a number of potential targets.
India has already cracked down on business visas this year, informing thousands of holders that they must return to their home countries and prove that they meet much stricter criteria before new visas will be issued.
Ironically, the clampdown comes as the country attempts to boost its tourism industry. Last week the home minister, P Chidambaram, announced the trial introduction of a visa on arrival scheme for citizens of Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Luxembourg and Finland and said a country the size of India should be attracting at least 50 million visitors a year. About five million tourists visit India every year, including an estimated three quarters of a million Britons.
A final draft of the visa regulations is expected to be issued next month but in the meantime a number of embassies in India have notified their citizens of the changes. The Indian embassy in Berlin has also posted the rule on its website, noting that “a minimum gap of two months is mandatory between visits as tourists to India”.
The introduction of the new system coincides with a visit to India by the business secretary, Lord Mandelson, who has been trying to calm Indian concerns over changes to Britain’s immigration rules.