After six decades, India-Pak agree to issue tourist visas

Published on Sep 10, 2004 09:20 PM IST

For 57 years, no Indian or Pakistani immigration officer stamped a tourist visa for citizens of each other's country. Few Pakistanis have seen the Taj Mahal; few Indians the red sandstone Lahore Fort.

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PTI | ByAssociated Press, New Delhi

For 57 years, no Indian or Pakistani immigration officer stamped a tourist visa for citizens of each other's country. Few Pakistanis have seen the Taj Mahal; few Indians the red sandstone Lahore Fort.

Now it appears they will have the opportunity. On Wednesday, at the end of the latest round of peace talks between the two countries, India and Pakistan announced they would grant each other tourist visas for the first time since the countries were torn apart at the end of British rule.

India is one of the world's leading tourist destinations, and Pakistan has an untapped tourism jackpot, trade experts say. But the two South Asian neighbours spent the last six decades fighting three wars, trading sharp-edged rhetoric and border bullets, and cross-border tourism was the last thing on the minds of their policy makers.

Millions of people on both sides who have relatives across the border were allowed short-term visit visas, on proof of family and for three cities only.

Once they arrive, visitors report to the local police who "look at you like a thief," said Indian lawyer Faisal Husain, 36, who has been visiting relatives in Pakistan since he was a child. Husain's family is among those ripped apart when Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as British colonialists left the subcontinent they had governed for two centuries. A bitter partition followed and some 10 million people were displaced. Many relatives were unable to meet for decades; some have yet to reunite. "I have been to Pakistan several times but was never able to go to see the ruins of the Indus Valley civilization," said Husain. "My Pakistani relatives and friends want to see the Taj Mahal and go to (the deserts of) Rajasthan. But they can't."

When Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf traveled to India for a summit in 2001, he visited his childhood home in New Delhi for the first time since partition and took his wife to gaze upon the white-marble Taj Mahal, the world's greatest monument to love. The visit ended in recriminations and when Islamic militants attacked India's Parliament the following year, India and Pakistan amassed a million troops along their shared frontier. India and Pakistan are now pursuing a slow, but sweeping effort to end their disputes, including the five-decade battle over Kashmir. Some results of that process are showing. Many people who earlier had to "invent a relative" to be able to travel across the border will now be able to travel freely, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursheed Kasuri said on Wednesday. "That means people will now start meeting with each other more often," Kasuri told the Indian state-run Doordarshan television channel.

Pakistan has ancient archaeological sites in Taxila and Mohenjodaro, Mughal forts and palaces, adventure tourism in the Himalayas, mountain safaris and the 800-kilometer (500-mile) Karakoram Highway connecting Islamabad with China's Xinjiang Province.

India is home to the Taj Mahal, Himalayan resorts, the deserts and palaces of Rajasthan, southern beaches, ancient forts and temples, mosques and shrines of nearly all religions. Some 3 million foreign tourists visited India last year. According to the tourism ministry, the number has surged 25 percent to 2.08 million in the first eight months of this year. According to the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council, India is the second-fastest growing tourism economy in the world. It estimates that India's tourism trade would grow by at least 8 percent each year for the next decade and that by 2014, India's tourism economy will generate US$90.4 billion in revenue and nearly 28 million jobs.

The new visa decision could also help the tourism economy of Pakistan, where the number of tourists has been some 500,000 for the past few years, according to Pakistan's tourism ministry. Indian visitors constituted the third-largest group in 2001 -- virtually all of whom traveled on short-term family visas -- after Britain and the United States, the ministry said. Some 20,000 Indians traveled to Pakistan earlier this year on special visas for a historic cricket series between the sporting rivals. The Himalayan region of Kashmir, the chief cause of friction between the two countries, could be the biggest winner when the tourist visas come into effect, although no timing has been given from either country.

"Traveling dissipates fears. Fears are created by mistrust. When people travel freely, they will understand each other better and will gain each other's trust," said Ghulam Qadir, a shawl weaver in Srinagar.

"We hardly get any tourists from neighboring countries, especially Pakistan, despite the proximity and affordability," said Ijaz Bazaz, owner of a travel company in Srinagar. "Kashmir has an attraction-value, and if Pakistani tourists are allowed to travel to Kashmir: Bingo!"

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