As UAE extends India flight ban, Bahrain puts NRIs in bigger trouble
Expatriate organisations had urged the Centre to operate more flights from Kerala and Bahrain so that NRIs could reach their workplaces in the UAE
The UAE has again extended its ban on flyers from India as the latter continues to struggle with a barrage of Covid-19 cases. The travel ban, which was initially imposed on April 25 and periodically extended, would now stay in force till June 14, 2021.
This continues to inconvenience the Indian community in the UAE who are close to 3.5 million (30% of the population) in number, making up the largest ethnic community in the UAE. A sizeable number of Indians, especially from Kerala, had gone to the UAE and elsewhere in the Middle East in search of work.
As a double whammy, Bahrain, which had emerged as a transit hub for non-resident Indians (NRIs) not being able to return to work in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait due to travel restrictions in those three countries, itself suspended the entry of travellers from India.
Passengers who had transited through India in the past 14 days would also be prevented from entering the UAE from other points.
Exceptions, however, continue to be made for UAE Golden Visa holders, UAE nationals and members of diplomatic missions on the condition that they follow the requisite Covid protocols. The exempted passengers would have to undergo a 10-day quarantine and also PCR tests at the airport. Additionally, they would have to go through PCR tests on the fourth and eighth day after entering the UAE. Also, Covid tests have to be done within 48 hours before travel.
The UAE has also tightened the rules for the operation of charter flights from India. The country has barred business jet operators from selling individual seats on charters headed to the UAE from Covid hotspots like India, The Times of India reported.
A view of the Dubai airport. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/airliners.net/Konstantin von Wedelstaedt
"When business aircraft are used to transport passengers from restricted destinations (like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and South Africa), they shall not be pooled or sold per seat. Operators hired for pooling or per seat offer may be banned from operating in the UAE," said the UAE's new aviation guidelines. Earlier in May, the UAE's General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) had said that not more than eight passengers would be allowed on business jets flying to the UAE.
Bahrain as transit hub
However, what really adds salt to injury for NRIs intending to return to the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait is the ban imposed by Bahrain on travellers from India. Bahrain, along with countries like Armenia and Uzbekistan, was being used by passengers from India to finish their 14-day quarantine outside India to be eligible for re-entering their country of work in the Middle East, The Week reported.
Stranded NRIs have been using charter flights to travel to these countries to spend their quarantine period and according to a Times of India report, the 'package' cost for quarantine stay in Tashkent, Uzbekistan was around Rs 1.35 lakh for air travel and 14 days' quarantine. Earlier in May, expatriate organisations had, in fact, urged the Centre to operate more flights from Kerala and Bahrain so that NRIs could reach their workplaces in the UAE and Saudi Arabia through a circuitous route. The travel ban imposed by Bahrain would deal a severe blow to NRIs working in the Gulf.
Moreover, new restrictions imposed by the UAE on passengers from India transiting through Dubai had forced German flag carrier Lufthansa to look at Bahrain as an alternative stopover destination for its flights between Germany and India. Accordingly, it was decided that Lufthansa's 10 weekly flights between Frankfurt and Delhi/Mumbai/Bengaluru would take a crew change halt at Bahrain, instead of the global aviation hub of Dubai from May 16.
Lufthansa had earlier decided that because of the raging Covid-19 storm in India, its flights would make a stopover in Dubai so that its pilots and cabin crew can avoid a layover in India.
How the travel ban by Bahrain would affect Lufthansa's functioning remains to be seen. "We are currently not aware of any information regarding the flights via Bahrain," Lufthansa said to a query on Twitter.
Bahrain's decision came after the medical task force constituted by the government recommended suspension of travel from 'red list' countries with heightened Covid risk, The Week reported citing Bahrain News Agency. Apart from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka are also on Bahrain's prohibited list.
Like the UAE, Bahrain has also made exceptions to the travel ban for its citizens and residency visa holders. However, they would have to furnish a negative report from a PCR test done within 48 hours prior to boarding and undergo a PCR test on arrival and another on the 10th day of stay. A 10-day quarantine at home or a licensed quarantine facility has also been made mandatory.
Abu Dhabi-based Etihad had announced attractive deals as the pandemic was showing signs of waning. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Anna Zvereva
Saudi Arabia had banned international travel when the pandemic broke out last year, and residents were allowed to leave the country, but not re-enter. Travel restrictions were lifted on May 17, but flights from India and 12 other countries remained suspended. Passengers transiting through India and 19 other countries with high Covid caseloads in the past 14 days are also not allowed to enter Saudi Arabia. Kuwait had suspended all direct commercial flights from India with effect from April 24. Entry is also prohibited for passengers who had transited through India any time during 14 days before arriving in Kuwait.
VBM, air bubble flights to be hit
The Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has been operating Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) repatriation flights between India and the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, apart from other countries. India also has air bubble agreements with the UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait, under which the carriers of India and these Gulf countries enjoy equal and reciprocal rights to operate flights between India and the respective Gulf countries.
These flights have brought back international air travel in a limited way at a time when regular scheduled commercial flights continue to be suspended in view of the coronavirus crisis, the emergence of mutant forms in many countries and the pandemic creating havoc in India. Both the VBM and air bubble flights between India and the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait would be severely hit as a result of these travel bans by the Gulf countries.
According to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) data, India reported a spike of 2,11,298 cases of Covid-19 in a day on May 27. Deaths rose by 3,847, but on the positive side, active cases fell by 75,684. Significantly, the daily addition of cases now is much lower than the over four lakh cases that the country had started to add at the start of May, around when the UAE had put an indefinite ban on flyers from India.
Evaporation of optimism
The extended travel ban would not only hurt Indian expatriate workers in the UAE but severely hit the tourism industry too. As it seemed India was gaining some degree of control over the pandemic, authorities in Asian destinations, including Dubai, were looking to woo Indian travellers. "Destinations such as Dubai and Maldives have seen 100% growth in bookings in December compared to previous months. We have obtained not just queries, but also encouraging bookings for Egypt," a SOTC spokesperson had told Live Mint.
There was a surge in demand for airline seats in December, fuelled by demand from holiday travellers from India to Dubai and festivals and year-end travel by expatriate Indians from the Emirates to their home states. According to industry sources, several Indian carriers registered about 90% passenger load factor (PLF), besides increased airfares in December.
With vaccine rollout in India, airlines were looking to do brisk business and Gulf giant Etihad offered attractive deals. The all-inclusive return fare from Delhi and Mumbai to Abu Dhabi/Dubai was Rs 16,477 and Rs 13,155 respectively, the airline had said.
Then the Covid surge in India that threatened to go out of hand pushed many countries, including the UAE to put India under 'red' lists, affecting millions of lives across sectors.
(Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/airliners.net/Konstantin von Wedelstaedt)