12 Oct 2021 20:13 IST

US lifts travel ban on India and ends the Maldives gold rush

Maldives rebooted its tourism industry while the US and Canada had a hodgepodge of restrictions in place.

Effective November, the US will no longer impose a travel ban on Indians who are fully vaccinated. Indians, among other world travellers from Europe, Brazil, and South Africa, will be allowed hassle-free entry into the US. A negative RT-PCR test taken 72 hours before the start of travel will still be required.

On April 30, in the wake of the deadly Delta variant, President Biden had imposed a blanket travel ban on Indian non-immigrant visa-holders, including the H1-B, L-1, their dependents, business travellers, and visitors. Although the initial order was only for 30 days, the ban has been renewed in 30-day increments each month. The case numbers are vastly better now, and vaccination levels have improved, prompting Biden to reverse course.

Policy inconsistencies

My column in BusinessLine was critical of that Biden policy that was laden with inconsistencies. The ban exempted US citizens and permanent residents as though the virus can tell the difference. Students on the F-1 /M-1 visas also had an automatic exemption, thanks to the university lobby, which depends upon international students for its existence. The order made no exceptions for Indians who may have recovered from Covid and are immune to it or have been fully vaccinated.

The ban was arbitrary too. People from developing countries like Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, and other Caribbean countries were exempt from similar restrictions, although their infection rates have been significantly higher than in the UK and other Schengen countries, which were subject to the ban.

Worse, Biden continues to welcome a flood of illegal immigrants bombarding US's southern border, placing US at a far higher risk of Covid spread than Indian travellers. Many migrants do not follow Covid protocols and are not vaccinated. Yet, they are being released into the vast USn hinterland before their asylum hearing with Notices to Appear, which could take years, and immigrants routinely ignore.

Unintended consequences

The US is not the only country with bizarre rules. Canada, in its wisdom, refuses to accept a Covid test administered by India. Fearful that test results may be doctored, Canada, which requires travellers to have an RT-PCR or rapid test 72 hours before travel, forces Indians to stopover in a third country just to get a trial. Wouldn't it be easier to just test everyone on arrival in Canada?

The Maldives is benefiting from the Canadian rule. As one of a few countries that grant visas on arrival to Indian passport holders, the city of Male is enjoying an economic resurgence not seen since the pandemic. Canada-bound Indians fly into Male, take the test, stay in a hotel, and depart the next day — revitalising the local economy and the various airlines with regular schedules from India to Male.

Australia and New Zealand were so paranoid that they didn't mind further isolating themselves from the world at large. Already secluded and only approachable by sea or air, both countries have imposed strict rules banning any unauthorised craft in their waters since April 2020. So, if you're a sailboat trying to make it to Perth from Africa's east coast riding the 40th parallel, you may be out of luck. You can't even turn back west because the heavy winds that propelled your boat only go one way. Last week, both countries realised the folly of pursuing a zero-Covid rate policy and announced that these bans would be slowly relaxed.

Other countries' economies are benefiting by hosting thousands of stranded Australians and New Zealanders. Ashleigh Barty, the Wimbledon Champion, had not returned to her home since February when she left Melbourne to compete in the European clay-court season.

Strategic advantages

Biden's unreasonable policy put US, a magnet for Indian travellers, out of reach. Indians, applying their congenital jugaad training, figured out ways to legally skirt the ban. The rule states that Indian passport holders on non-immigrant visas cannot arrive in the US directly from India. But if they came in from another country where Covid case counts are not relatively as high and stayed there for 14 days, they were welcome to travel to the US. The world's first outsourcer, cleverly outsourced Covid risk too. CDC research shows that the pandemic has been highly contagious for 14 days since the initial infection. If a third country gets the coronavirus during the Indian passport holder's temporary stay, the US is okay with it, arguing that it is the other country's headache.

Mexico, Serbia, and the Maldives, rocked by the pandemic, have made a lot of hay by agreeing to host desperate Indian travellers wanting to visit the US. These passengers board a West Asian carrier like Emirates, Qatar, or Etihad and land in Mexico City, Belgrade, or Male — places they never once dreamed of visiting on their own before. On arrival, they stay in an all-inclusive resort, often under severe local travel restrictions, lazing away the 14 days. At the resort, everything is choreographed. Airport transfers, food, entertainment, access to local sightseeing on resort-owned vehicles, and even an RT-PCR test before the long-awaited departure flight to the US are all included in the package deal. Having again outsourced Covid travel protocols to the airlines, the US doesn't even bother to check the dramatic increase of Indian travellers from these cities. Everyone wins.

Egged on by the success of the Maldives, creative tour operators in Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai now offer 14-day desert vacation packages to skirt the ban. The bill for such excursions, quickly running up to $10,000, is gladly assumed by the waiting diaspora techie couple in the US eager to have parents reunite with their children or yet-to-be-born child. $10,000 is still much less expensive than babysitting and domestic help charges.

Covid has forever changed the world because of unpredictable and sometimes silly government policies. The travel restrictions had triggered a surprising economic revival in parts of the world desperate for recovery. That gold rush is now over.