India will start giving tourists free, pre-activated SIM cards on arrival in the country.
The cards will be loaded with 50MB of data, plus some credit for phone calls, and they’re available to tourists from 161 countries who come to India on an e-visa.
They’ll first be available at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Airport, before being rolled out to 15 other major airports around the country.
They’re not the first country to consider an initiative like this.
In August, Thailand’s telecommunications regulator approved a plan to make tourists use special SIM cards that would allow the government to track their movements.
The move came as the Thai military, which rose to power following a 2014 coup, continues to crackdown on misbehaving tourists.
It sounds a bit creepy, but government officials insist it’s designed to catch criminals and assist tourists who run into trouble.
India’s tourism minister, Dr Mahesh Sharma, said he got the idea when he was given a similar card while visiting Sri Lanka.
He indicated it was more about guaranteeing safety for tourists.
According to the government, the move will also promote hassle-free travel.
Until now, it’s been notoriously difficult for tourists to get an Indian phone number.
The bureaucratic process requires them to provide a range of documents to prove their identity, as well as a photocopy of their passport with a valid visa stamp, proof of address, and the contact details of a local reference.
Even then, it often takes days for the number to be activated.
By contrast, tourists will simply have to show their passport and a copy of their e-visa to get their hands on one of the new SIM cards.
The initiative will also help foreigners access a 24-hour government helpline with information available in 12 different languages.
It’s been a bumpy road for tourists as the country races to embrace technology under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Late last year, many foreigners — including Australians — were stranded without money when the government abruptly demonetised their high-value currency.
Mr Modi said it was time for the nation to embrace online banking, in a bid to tackle fraud and increase transparency.
Emily Kaelin, a 28-year-old public relations manager from Sydney, told news.com.au in November the queues were “frenzied” as people desperately tried to exchange worthless notes.
“I only heard the evening before it happened, so we basically had no warning, and couldn’t make any preparations,” she said.
“We planned to stay in Pondicherry about four nights and ended up being stuck there for two weeks because we had no way of accessing cash.
“We didn’t have enough money to even pay off our accommodation, so needed to keep extending our stay in the hope that at some point, we could access some cash.”
Similar to the way online banking increases transparency, the free SIM cards will also help the government track tourists and record their travel patterns.
“This initiative will help tourists immediately communicate with their relatives back home, hotels, tour operators and so on,” he said.