For a country with the tourist potential and business opportunities that India has, it has a visa regime that does little to encourage the foreign visitor or inwards investor — but that may be changing. Indian media is reporting that a change in the regime is under consideration, with visa restrictions for around 180 countries to be relaxed. As things stand, the majority of foreign visa applications require several weeks to process and applications have to be submitted at designated visa processing centres. Most tourists come from the UK, the US and other European countries, all of whom have to go through this tedious process. Now, the intelligence agencies have decided that they will support tourists applying online followed by a three-day wait and, if approved, a pick-up at the airport that is the point of entry. All of which sounds like very good news, except that Pakistan is not on the list of countries that are to see a relaxation of the rules.
Considering the potential for cross-border tourism given the shared cultural heritage, this is something less than a confidence-building measure; indeed, it is the opposite. If India really wants to lower the temperature of bilateral relations, it needs to be waking up to the reality that not all Pakistanis are terrorists. There are many Pakistanis who would choose to visit India for tourism given the opportunity. The families that were divided in 1947 are still split in many instances and would welcome a chance to renew family ties and meet with relatives on the other side of the border.
An emerging middle class with disposable income will buy into subcontinental tourism — and that goes both ways. Person-to-person contact is a proven way of defusing tensions. Paranoia and mistrust are both easily fed in India and Pakistan, with myths and half-truths and plain old lies told in the service of further dividing the two. The corrosive relationship that has been assiduously maintained by both needs to be dialled back and perpetuating old frictions in this way helps nobody.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 6th, 2014.