By Doyinsola Oladipo
NEW YORK (Reuters) - People from India have been traveling abroad more, and the United States is trying to accommodate the new tourism boom by opening two new consulates in the South Asian country.
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the White House this week in what has been billed as a turning point for bilateral relations. Modi had plans to meet on Friday with numerous executives seeking to invest more in India as the U.S. pushes to process more visas.
In 2022, India became for the first time Asia’s highest source of international travelers, according to tourism consultancy IPK International. International travelers from India in 2022 exceeded those of China, South Korea, and Japan, the company said.
The U.S. tourism sector has taken note. "New markets like India may offset (other countries) and help us grow in the long run," said Geoff Freeman, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association.
The United States will open two new consulates in India in the cities of Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, according to a joint statement from President Joe Biden and Modi.
The leaders directed officials to identify additional mechanisms to facilitate travel for business, tourism, and professional and technical exchanges between the two countries, according to the statement.
For the first five months of 2023, travel from India to the United States has exceeded pre-pandemic volumes, according to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce National Travel and Tourism Office. Other Asian countries are lagging, particularly China, where travelers have been slow to return to the United States post-pandemic.
India last year ranked third among overseas travelers visiting the United States, up from eighth in 2019. Those figures do not include cross-border visitors from Canada and Mexico. Executives said the activity reflects trends similar to those that emerged several years ago in China.
“When you think about the power of the Chinese(international) traveler (due to) that rising middle class and wealth creation there, India is going through the same evolution too," IHG Hotels and Resorts CEO Keith Barr said at a hospitality conference this month.
U.S. embassies and consulates in India have issued 44% more non-immigrant visas in 2023 than in the same period in 2019 and are on course to process over one million visas this year, a State Department spokesperson said.
"Our consular teams have been making a huge push to process as many visa applications as possible in India," said the spokesperson. "This is a top priority for our government."
The outlook for the rest of the year looks promising. Flight bookings from India to the United States for the last quarter of 2023 are 26% higher than pre-pandemic levels, according to ForwardKeys, a travel data firm.
The primary bottleneck for travelers has been waiting to get a first-time visitor visas. Wait times were 337 days in early April down from 669 days in mid-March, according to the U.S. Travel Association.
Air India recently launched non-stop service from Mumbai to New York and San Francisco and from Bengaluru to San Francisco.
"The number of people of Indian origin who have settled down in the U.S. have been increasing day-by-day for studies or employment. So the demands of their parents, in-laws and families to go has also been increasing,” said Rajiv Mehra, president of the Indian Association of Tour Operators.
(Reporting by Doyinsola Oladipo in New York; additional reporting by Indranil Sarkar in Bangalore, Aditi Shah in New Delhi and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio and Angus MacSwan)