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Free visas to India could yield more pilgrims, longer waits

The Mahabodhi temple compound is shown in the eastern Indian city of Bodh Gaya on 23 January 2008. (Photo: Reuters)

A decision this week by India to grant visas free of charge to Burmese nationals, likely a boon to Burma’s outbound tour operators, has been met with some concern by an association of travel agencies that specialise in pilgrimages to the sacred Buddhist site Bodh Gaya.

The Bodh Gaya Pilgrimages Working Committee, formed of 102 Burmese tour operators, says an anticipated influx of those seeking to take advantage of the new arrangement could overwhelm the Indian Embassy in Rangoon, slowing visa processing considerably and inconveniencing would-be Buddhist pilgrims.

The gratis visa deal was one of a series of agreements reached between the two countries during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Burma this week.

“I’m pleased to announce that we have decided to grant gratis visa to all citizens of Myanmar who want to visit India,” Modi said on Wednesday.

Khine Thazin Hnin, secretary of the Bodh Gaya Pilgrimages Working Committee and owner of Khin Nandar Pilgrimages Company, told DVB on Thursday that the Indian Embassy should be prepared for a rise in visa applications — and ramp up its processing capacity accordingly.

Without additional capacity, “the process of gratis visa will take 40 days,” she said. “It’s not easy for most people.”

She said currently, average processing time for tourist visas to India was about two weeks.

Though Khine Thazin Hnin supports free visas for Burmese nationals travelling to India, she said better still would be an arrangement similar to those Burma has with several other members of ASEAN, which allow for “visa on arrival” to the destination country.

The Bodh Gaya Pilgrimages Working Committee has scheduled to meet with officials from the Indian Embassy in Rangoon on 11 September to discuss how best to handle the new gratis visa agreement. Peak season for Bodh Gaya pilgrimages is generally October to April.

In recent years, the Indian government had issued gratis visas to just 3,700 people per year, typically to members of the monkhood.

A joint statement from the Burmese and Indian governments on Wednesday said the new gratis arrangement would apply to all categories of visa, except e-visas. It’s particularly notable change in India’s visa policy for Burmese travellers given that earlier this year, visa fees were hiked from $42 to $102.

While in Burma, Modi met with President Htin Kyaw and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as speaking to hundreds of members of the country’s Hindu community on Wednesday in Rangoon.

Soe Maung, chairman of the Hindu Central Council in Pyin Oo Lwin, attended Modi’s speech and said the Indian prime minister signalled that a more friendly visa scheme for Burmese nationals would be forthcoming, though he did not indicate whether that would mean a reduced fee or free-of-charge arrangement.

“It’s good for Bodh Gaya pilgrims if the visa fees would be free of charge,” he said.