How India-China Direct Flights Went From 539 … to Zero

FILE PHOTO An Air China plane is seen at the international airport in Beijing scaled e1698559755670

Skift Take

Two tourism powerhouses, two economic giants, two of the world’s most populous countries — and yet, not a single direct flight between India and China.

In December 2019, India and China were connected through 539 direct passenger flights. Now there are none.

IndiGo and Air India had operated flights to China while Air China, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines, had connected Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou to Indian cities.

The two countries suspended these flights during the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent border clashes in June 2020 – there are still thousands of troops mobilized on both sides.

A recent Reuters report said that China has been pushing to resume direct air links between the two countries, but India remains cautious due to the strained diplomatic relations.

Current Travel Routes and Costs

In the absence of direct flights, travelers between India and China must rely on connecting flights through third countries, such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore. The detour adds time and cost.

In 2019, a round-trip economy class ticket between New Delhi and Beijing typically ranged between $350 to $550, and took around six hours. Currently, the shortest flight duration between New Delhi and Beijing is 10.5 hours, with fares around $1,280. The cheapest available flights take roughly 12 hours and cost $650.

“China’s strict Covid-19 travel policies, including the ‘circuit-breaker’ rule which suspended flights if passengers tested positive upon arrival, further complicated the resumption of direct flights,” said Linus Benjamin Bauer, founder and managing director of Bauer Aviation Advisory. Although China has relaxed this rule, it has not yet led to the resumption of direct flights, Bauer noted.

Visa Restrictions

Visa restrictions are also a barrier.

Nuo Li, a sustainable tourism consultant from Beijing, experienced this firsthand when applying for an Indian e-visa in March 2024 in London, where she currently lives.

Li first visited India in March 2019 on a straightforward double-entry e-visa to meet her boyfriend’s family in the southern Indian state of Kerala. This year, she found no travel visa category for Chinese nationals.

“During my appointment at the VFS office in London, the staff handling my application informed me that they could not accept my application and advised me to seek special approval from the Indian Embassy in London,” Li told Skift. She said she wrote to the Indian embassy but hasn’t received any response so far.

Responding to a Skift query, a VFS Global spokesperson said, “Chinese nationals applying for an Indian visa must submit their applications from their home country as per the directives of the High Commission of India.”

The spokesperson said that for further clarification, applicants would need to directly contact the High Commission of India in London.

The Consulate General of India’s office in Guangzhou states on its website that e-visas for Chinese nationals are “temporarily suspended.” “All those who have a compelling reason to visit India may contact the Embassy of India in Beijing or the Indian consulates in Shanghai or Guangzhou, as well as the Indian Visa Application Centres in these cities,” the notice reads.

Tourism Demand

Wolfgang Georg Arlt, a China tourism expert, noted that even before the pandemic, travel between India and China was relatively low, as most of the traffic was made up of business people, students or medical tourists.

Arlt, who is also the CEO of Chinese Outbound Tourism Research Institute (COTRI), cited COTRI research that highlighted that Chinese travelers have a negative perception of India, while Indians do not feel welcome in China.

Arlt said that while direct flights would help, improving political relations and addressing these negative perceptions would have a more significant impact on travel demand.

Mary Li, CEO and founder of travel tech startup Atlas, said that political tensions, changing policies and the pandemic have greatly affected travel between the two countries.

Despite this, Li said there is still significant demand for travel: Chinese travelers have conducted almost 24 million flight searches for India so far this year, according to Atlas data.

The most popular routes include Shanghai-Mumbai and Shanghai-Delhi, followed by Chengdu and Guangzhou as other popular departure cities.

Business Travel

Li said that many Chinese companies having stopped operations in India, and that this has led to a decline in business travel demand.

With 539 scheduled flights suspended, FCM Travel India has also seen a drop in business travel, said Sunny Sodhi, managing director of FCM Travel India.

“It is not just the lack of direct flights between India and China, but also the complexities around getting visa approvals which impact the ability and ease to travel between these two countries,” Sodhi said.

However, Sodhi noted that this has also led to Dubai emerging as a popular business hub for Indian travelers and Singapore for China. He said this is also backed by easing of visa processes between these countries.

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