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India plans to provide visas on arrival to visitors from 40 countries in a bid to increase tourism revenue. The new three-month visas will also be available at small airports that are close to religiously important sites such as Goa, Gaya and Amritsar.
Visitors from the US, UK, Italy, UAE, Canada, Brazil, Australia, Germany, France, Spain and Switzerland, will be among the 40 nationalities to benefit from the service.
Currently visas on arrival are only available to visitors from 11 countries including Japan, Finland, Singapore, Indonesia, and New Zealand.
"A decision was taken to relax the existing visa norms. Necessary executive steps will be taken soon to make visas on arrival available to these visitors," federal Planning Minister Rajiv Shukla said.
The decision was taken at a federal Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday, he said.
Goa, a former Portuguese colony, is home to several Christian pilgrimage sites including the Bom Jesu Cathedral which houses the remains of Saint Francis Xavier. The cathedral attracts thousands of pilgrims from around the world each year.
Gaya district in Bihar state has sites that also attract Hindu, Buddhist and Jain pilgrims from overseas. These include the Mahabodhi Buddhist temple complex.
Amritsar in the Punjab is home to the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.
Shukla said visas on arrival will help boost religious tourism.
"The government feels this step should be taken to help garner more foreign exchange at a time when the Indian economy has hit problems," Shukla said.
According to the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India the number of tourist bookings this year has dropped at least 25 percent. Reports of rape and other crimes against foreign women are thought to be a major factor in the drop.
In 2012 some 6.6 million overseas tourists visited India, helping country earn US$17.74 billion in revenue, the Federal Tourism Ministry says.
Tour operators welcomed the government move. "Visa relaxation will definitely help increase tourism revenue," said Jeeten Bahadur Singh, a tour operator in New Delhi.
"This needs to be implemented as soon as possible. Also more tourist-friendly measures should be taken to tap tourists from other South Asian countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka" which can attract thousands of religious tourists, he said.