. 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.
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.