Coronavirus | Amid lockdown, foreign embassies worry about stranded tourists

Diplomatic missions are dealing with twin challenges of keeping staff safe while ensuring their nationals are able to return, given the ban on all commercial flights

Updated - March 25, 2020 08:44 am IST

Published - March 24, 2020 10:15 pm IST - NEW DELHI

Nowhere to go: Planes stationed on the runway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai as all domestic and international flights have been cancelled.

Nowhere to go: Planes stationed on the runway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai as all domestic and international flights have been cancelled.

Germany is hoping to fly out the first batch of an estimated 3,000 to 5,000 tourists who have been stuck in India since the government banned commercial flights a week ago to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The special flights, starting on Wednesday and expected to operate all week, are being coordinated by an “embassy crisis centre” being run 24/7 at the Embassy in Delhi, which is registering all German tourists and travellers in India so as to evacuate them.

“As an act of solidarity in these difficult times, we are also taking some European Union citizens with us. We will keep on working to facilitate for all who want to fly back,” Germany’s Ambassador to India Walter Lindner told The Hindu .

Close to airports

In a video broadcast in German on social media on Tuesday, Mr. Lindner also told citizens that they should try and move to hotels near the Delhi airport in preparation for the flights.

Apart from the challenge of dealing with the large numbers of Germans in India, is the fact that many are individual travellers, including some who are travelling in remote mountains, embassy officials explained.

As the lockdown in Delhi over the pandemic continues, several embassies say they are dealing with the twin worries of keeping their own staff safe while ensuring their nationals are able to return.

The government announced on March 17 that it would not allow any nationals from 37 countries to come to India, and has banned all commercial flight operations from March 22. However, the External Affairs Ministry says it will “facilitate requests for special flights by resident missions on a case by case basis.”

The government has also been coordinating with missions so that flights coming in to evacuate foreigners can bring in Indians stranded in their home countries as in the case of a KLM flight from Amsterdam and an Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur. The Home Ministry announced last week that it would extend all visas for foreign nationals until April 15.

Another worry a number of embassies say they are facing is the harassment of, and discrimination against, foreign nationals. One European diplomat said their citizens had been denied rooms at hotels when they arrived in Delhi, over fears they might carry the virus. Among the first major cases of the novel coronavirus in India were 16 Italian tourists in Rajasthan, who came into contact with an estimated over 200 Indians during their stay here. Most of them have now been discharged from hospitals in Gurugram.

The Spanish Embassy in Delhi says it estimates more than 400 of their tourists are still in India, and have been negotiating with local hotels to help accommodate them until they are able to get a special flight, or when commercial operations resume.

“While no hotel is throwing guests out, we are having a hard time securing new hotel reservations, as tourists are returning from places such as Pushkar and Rishikesh, and need to stay in Delhi,” said a Spanish Embassy official.

Face stigma

“Many of them say that Europeans are being identified and targeted particularly, taunted by bystanders who call them “corona”. It is very unusual for them, when this is normally such a friendly country,” he added.

The U.S. Embassy in Delhi, which has among the largest citizen populations in India, is also working on ways for Americans to be transported back. “We are working with airline companies and Indian authorities to identify transportation options for U.S. citizens to return,” an embassy spokesperson said.

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