India allows regular international flights after two-year pandemic hiatus

Increase of weekly services to nearly 1,800 raises hopes of revival for travel and tourism sector

International air passengers arrive at Chennai International Airport on March 27, 2022. Regular international passenger flight services to and from India have resumed after two years of suspension because of the coronavirus pandemic. EPA

Regular international flights to India resumed on Sunday more than two years after the government banned overseas commercial air travel to battle the coronavirus pandemic.

Scheduled international flights to and from India were halted in 2020 to curb the spread of the virus in the second-most populous country, although several airlines were later allowed to operate flights under an “air bubble” arrangement.

The Civil Aviation Ministry said this month that regular flights would be restored in view of significant vaccination coverage across the world that has reduced the infection rates.

“After having recognised the increased vaccination coverage across the globe and in consultation with the stakeholders, the Government of India has decided to resume scheduled commercial international passenger services to/from India,” the ministry statement said.

Passengers are still required to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test and self-monitor their health for 14 days after arriving in India.

Authorities will randomly test 2 per cent of arriving passengers to help track new Covid-19 variants.

The Health Ministry said wearing of masks and other preventive measures will remain mandatory at the airport and flights.

It has, however, eased some Covid-19 measures for flight crew members, including rules on wearing personal protective equipment.

On Sunday, the ministry reported 1,421 new cases in the country within the past 24 hours, down from a peak of 300,000 during the Omicron variant-driven third wave in January. The overall death toll rose by 149, to 521,034.

About 1.83 billion vaccine shots have been administered in India since the country was battered by a ferocious second wave early last year.

Sixty-seven per cent of the adult population has had at two vaccine doses, and 90 per cent has had at least one.

But the resumption of regular flights has raised concerns after a sharp rise in cases in Europe and the US caused by the highly contagious new BA.2 variant.

At least 69 per cent of Indians opposed the move over fears of new variants entering the country, according to a survey conducted by LocalCircles, a private online survey agency.

But tour and travel operators have welcomed the return of regular flights as a boost to tourism.

India resumed issuing tourist visas in November but arrivals have been meagre owing to the ban on commercial flights.

The country is a popular tourist destination and the sector contributed nearly $200 billion to India’s GDP in 2019.

Quote
We are excited ... We were pushing that for quite some time because we believe one can’t control the virus by banning air travel
Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India

Ten million foreign arrivals in India were recorded in 2019 but that figure dropped to 2.7 million in 2020, the country’s tourism ministry said.

About 21.5 million people working in the sector lost their jobs in the second half of 2020, according to government estimates.

About 60 airlines from 40 countries have been permitted to operate 1,783 flights to and from India each week under the summer schedule, effective from Sunday to October 29.

Emirates airline, which is based in Dubai, said its services to India would return to pre-pandemic levels from April 1, with 170 flights to nine cities each week.

“We are excited ... We were pushing that for quite some time because we believe one can’t control the virus by banning air travel. It doesn’t need a boarding card,” Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India, told The National.

“There is a huge demand and we are expecting inbound tourists during the summer holidays. It will take the industry at least three years to recover losses but business-wise the numbers are bouncing back,” Ms Mayal said.

The currently high air fares could delay a full recovery, said Rajeev Mehra, chairman of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.

“It is a good sign that the flights are starting and the restrictions on old visas lifted but it all depends on the airlines,” he told The National.

“It will take us two weeks to understand the air fares; if they are stabilised, then only it can help the tourism industry. The higher air fare is affecting us.”

Updated: March 28, 2022, 5:02 AM
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