March 12, 2020 / 7:32 AM / 19 days ago

India's tourist industry sees crisis looming from coronavirus visa ban

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian hotels and travel operators said on Thursday their industry would be hurt by the government’s decision not to issue visas for visitors, as the country reported its first death from coronavirus.

A Tibetan monk wearing mask walks out of the Gyuto Tantric Monastery which has been closed for a month amid coronavirus fears, in Dharamsala, India, March 12, 2020. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

A 76-year-old man became the first person to die from coronavirus in the country, a state health minister said on Thursday.

B Sriramulu, the health minister of Karnataka state, said in a tweet that authorities were currently carrying out contact tracing, isolation and other measures related to the case.

With just 74 confirmed cases of the virus and a single death, India, a country of 1.3 billion people, has so far fared better than elsewhere in Asia, Europe and North America.

But experts say India’s already overstretched medical system would struggle to deal with a major rise in serious cases.

New Delhi said on Wednesday it would cancel almost all visas until April 15, a move that could damage an industry that caters to about 10 million foreign tourists a year. [L4N2B443Y]

“Everything has been canceled,” Rachna Singh, CEO of the Federation of Hospitality and Tourism of Rajasthan, a popular destination for visitors with its forts and palaces, saying many people who had booked to visit next month had abandoned plans.

She said four in 10 people relied in some way on tourism in Rajasthan, where some of the first cases of coronavirus in India were reported last month among a group of Italian visitors.

“All our members are suffering at the moment,” said Chetan Gupta, general secretary of the Association of Domestic Tour Operators of India, adding that the visa ban risked taking tourism and business activity to an “all time low”.

Sooraj Nair, director of the five-star Crowne Plaza hotel in Kochi, a city in southern India famed for its spices, said occupancy at his hotel had dropped to 20%.

Average hotel occupancy in India in 2019 was around two thirds.

Government and industry sources said on Thursday they expected economic growth to slide for at least two quarters. [L4N2B41MP]

Share prices of Indian airlines tumbled on Thursday, as the visa ban prompted ticket discounting in an already depressed air travel market. [L4N2B458H]

Other regional nations also took steps to combat the virus. The Maldives archipelago declared a public health emergency giving the government extra powers to ban pubic gatherings and Sri Lanka ordered schools closed for more than five weeks.

Indian Sports Secretary RS Jhulaniya told Reuters that the chief ministers of two states where India’s cricket national team will play South Africa this month have been told the matches can go ahead but that stadiums must be empty.

Brijesh Patel, chairman of the governing council of the Indian Premier League for domestic cricket, said a meeting would be held on Saturday to discuss “all possibilities” regarding the tournament that is due to start this month, including visas for overseas players and whether spectators could watch.

Reporting by Alasdair Pal and Devjyot Ghoshal in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai, Jose Devasia in Kochi, Waruna Karunatilake in Colombo and Mohamed Junayd in Male; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani, Edmund Blair and Toby Chopra

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