Looser Visa Rules for Indian Travelers Stoke a Tourism Boom

Khurana in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Photographer: Ojasvi Khurana (Photographer: Ojasvi Khurana)

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- When Ojasvi Khurana was planning an impromptu three-week vacation in April, she had one overriding consideration: Which country would allow her in on short notice. The 24-year-old engineer from Bengaluru ended up solo-tripping across the lush highlands and white-sand beaches of Thailand, in large part because the government there last November lifted visa requirements for travelers from India and a handful of other countries. “I booked my tickets to Bangkok just a few days before leaving India, because there wasn’t any visa needed,” Khurana says. “I’m really glad that worked out.”

What worked out for Khurana has also worked out for Thailand. Bookings to the country this year are up 35%, Thailand’s tourism ministry reports, including a record number of Indians. “I wanted to skip crowded places,” Khurana says, but she kept running into her compatriots. “In Chiang Mai, I made a lot of Indian friends and went partying.”

Indian passports are notoriously weak, but as India gets wealthier, the situation is improving. Thailand is one of dozens of countries across Asia and Europe that have revised entry restrictions in the past year. They’re stepping up marketing in anticipation of a boom in travel from the country of 1.4 billion, with most already reporting an increase in Indian visitors.

Only 6.6% of Indians, or about 93 million people, held passports last year. Getting visas can be costly and tedious, with many foreign embassies requiring bank statements and in-person interviews. And even after the recent relaxations, just 61 countries allow visa-free access (versus almost 200 for many wealthier nations), according to Henley & Partners, an immigration law firm. Waiting times for appointments can stretch to eight months, forcing some people to cancel trips if they can’t get their paperwork processed in time. In 2023, Indians were among the most rejected applicants in European Union countries.

That’s starting to change as countries from Peru to Morocco open or expand travel offices in Indian cities, recruiting Bollywood stars as ambassadors and offering freebie trips to tour operators. Singapore’s tourism board built an installation at a big Mumbai mall featuring DJs, culinary specialties and screens touting local attractions. Saudi Arabia, which says it wants 7.5 million Indian tourists annually by 2030, up from 1.5 million last year, has opened visa offices, hosted exhibits about its culture, and introduced an expedited four-day stopover visa for Indians on long-haul flights with transfers in the kingdom.

The EU in April relaxed entry restrictions for Indians, allowing multiple-entry, longer-term visas for those who have made at least two previous trips to the region. That same month, Japan began allowing Indians to use a simplified e-visa process. And the United Arab Emirates, with a large expat community, this year began issuing Indians multiple-entry visas. “When a country relaxes its visa regulations, the adjustment not only facilitates entry for foreign visitors but also sends a strong signal of hospitality,” says Xiang Li, a tourism professor at the University of Central Florida.

Indians made about 13 million international trips in 2022, according to McKinsey & Co., which expects that number to explode to more than 80 million annually by 2040. Already by 2030, the country’s citizens will become the world’s fourth-largest spenders on overseas travel, reservations website predicts, splashing out $410 billion annually, almost triple the level in 2019. “More Indians are traveling than at any time in history,” according to an annual study from Mastercard Inc.

The growth is being propelled by the increasingly affluent middle class, whose members have spent 25% more on travel so far this year than in the same period in 2023, tour operator SOTC India says. And it’s Generation Z, those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, that’s leading the way, with four-fifths planning an overseas vacation as soon as they land a job or get their first paycheck, flight-booking website Skyscanner reports. “I was just saving up to have a nice big trip for myself,” says 24-year-old Riju Pramanik, who’s on a monthlong stay in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Paris after being hired as a software developer.

India’s two largest airlines have made the biggest jet purchases in aviation history: No. 1 IndiGo has ordered more than 1,000 planes, including 30 wide-body models from Airbus SE intended for long-haul flights—allowing the budget carrier to add to the 17 foreign routes it’s introduced in the past year. No. 2 Air India, the leader in international travel, has outstanding orders for 470 planes from Airbus and Boeing Co.

At least a half-dozen overseas rivals such as Etihad Airways, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia have added or introduced service to smaller cities like Amritsar in the north and Thiruvananthapuram, the coastal capital of the state of Kerala. And Budapest-based budget airline Wizz Air has applied to fly from Europe to India. “It’s a massive market,” says Michael Delehant, chief operating officer at Wizz. The carrier plans “to further tap into it and connect it appropriately with the rest of the Wizz franchise.”

In Thailand, there are growing numbers of Indian eateries with specialties such as naan, paneer and pani puri. And in Pattaya, hotels with buffets catering to group tours serve more than 200 Indians a day, with most options “100% vegetarian,” says Karim Wahba, marketing boss at Royal Vacation tours in Bangkok. “They don’t want to miss out on Indian tourists,” he says. “So they will keep food they know Indians will enjoy.” —With Kate Duffy, Siddharth Vikram Philip and K Oanh Ha

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