Most countries by now are aware that tourism is one of the strongest forces for building economies. But policies that regulate the movement of people across international borders often discourage tourism. It’s as if the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. I recently encountered that schism in a personal experience.
My father in law, Albert, wanted to travel to India to fulfill a lifetime wish to see the Taj Mahal, so he arranged a trip through Big Five Tours with personal assistance from Ashish Sanghrajka, the president of Big Five and an American of Indian ancestry. Through a series of phone calls they worked out all the necessary details and then there was one more essential task: to obtain a visa to allow entry into India.
There was one detail that complicated the situation and that was that Albert was set to travel to Denmark soon, before he goes to India. Giving up his passport for several days to apply for a visa so close to his departure to Denmark made him nervous.
He would not be able to get on the plane to Denmark without his passport, so any glitch in the process could have grounded him. If his passport happened to be lost in the process or in the mail, it could have forced him to give up his trip to Denmark while he recovered his passport or applied for a new one.
The scheduling did not allow for any errors, so Albert decided to drive to New York from Maine, where he lives, to try to apply for a visa in person. He didn’t want to have to drop his passport in the mail and hope for everything to work out.
Outsourcing the Visa Application Process
Last May the Indian government outsourced its visa application processing to Cox & Kings Global Services, a division of one of the oldest tour operators in the world and one that has been arranging travel to India since 1758 during the days of the British Raj. CKGS set up offices to handle visa applications in six American cities: New York, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta.
But there were some disturbing rumblings about the visa processing system. A San Francisco Examiner article entitled “Fury, anger over Indian visa mess” said, “Nearly all travel to India from the West Coast is on hold thanks to a bureaucratic nightmare at the downtown San Francisco office that's been contracted by the Indian Consulate to process visas.”
The bottleneck created so much fury among frustrated applicants, according to the article, that police had to be called to break up fights on two occasions, and two people called 911 to report stolen passports.
Not a reassuring sign for someone planning a trip to India.
In fairness to Cox & Kings, the article had come out only a week after Cox & Kings took over India’s visa processing, and as the article reported, the previous contractor handling visas had left a backlog of 5,000 unprocessed visas that Cox & Kings had to wade through before it could get up to speed.
The CKGS visa processing website presented a detailed list of requirements for getting a visa online that included filling out some forms online and printing them, getting photos and “affixing” them to the forms, then sending the forms and your passport by mail or taking them to one of the visa processing offices.
The instructions on the website started with an intimidating warning that “Many travelers grapple with the necessary paperwork while getting a visa for India. While applying for an Indian visa, a precise application process is essential for ensuring a seamless procedure.”
The tone of the instructions gives the impression that getting accepted for a visa is not easy, travel to India is not for everyone, and errors will disqualify you, or at least make you have to start over. Forms have to be filled out and submitted online and then also printed and submitted in hard copy. They will not accept forms filled out by hand.
Albert called for an appointment at the New York office, but the earliest one he could get was Sept. 17. That was well after the time he was supposed to be in Denmark. Sanghrajka told him that if he went into the office with precisely the right paperwork, he should be able to get the visa. His desire to not have to give up his passport for a few days was a virtual impossibility.
Albert filled out the forms carefully and printed them as per the instructions. He gathered all the necessary documents, including his passport, his driver’s license for proof of address, an application form, a CKGS Order form, an Additional Particular Form and a passport photo. He went into New York to the CKGS processing office on 23rd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and I went with him for company and to satisfy my curiosity on the subject.
We wanted to be sure to be at the office as early as possible to avoid the backlogs that would inevitably build up during the day, so we ended up arriving 45 minutes before the 11:30 a.m. opening time. We were told to come back about 10 minutes before opening time. When we came back we were allowed to go up to the second floor and get into line. We were among the first five or six people there and we got to the front of the line within 15 minutes or so of arriving.
The first desk was a pre-screening desk where they checked to see if you had all the necessary documents. If you didn’t have them, you would not be able to go to the next step.
At the pre-screening desk we were met by a charming young woman who served us cheerfully and helpfully. The process took only a few minutes and then we were cleared to take a number and go into the waiting room for the final processing. In the waiting area we sat in a row of chairs and I pulled out my cell phone to check my emails. A tall guard approached me and told me I could not use my cell phone there so I put it away.
We waited about 10 minutes before we were called to one of several counters for processing. We were attended by another young woman who was also very friendly, patient and helpful.
With the correct documents in hand the process was quick and easy, and we were grateful for that. We asked if there was any way to do it without having to give up the passport and explained why. But there was no way, the woman said regretfully. “There is no expediting process,” she said.
After mulling it over a bit, Albert decided to relinquish his passport and he left with that anxious feeling you get when you have to hand over that essential document to a person and a process you don’t know. To minimize the risk of losing it in the mail, he arranged to have a family member pick it up at the office when it would be ready the following week after the processing was done.
The reason they have to hold onto the passport, the woman explained, was because they stick the visa form onto one of the pages of the passport. Why they couldn’t mail the visa and let you stick it onto your own passport was not explained.
Cox & Kings did a good job. We had no complaints about the way they handled it. But the regulations themselves were difficult enough that it was obvious that they would filter out some who would like to go to India if it was as easy as going to many other countries. Some tour operators I talked to who deal with the process on a daily basis confirmed that they believe the process does deter tourism. Though most may succeed in working through the process, for some undetermined number it will be the factor that tips the balance to another destination that is easier to enter.
“The process of getting a visa is more stressful for India than any other country,” Sanghrajka told me. “It slows the process and could also be deterring potential visitors from choosing India over Africa. India needs to move to a visa-on-arrival system like most any other country out there.”
To Sanghrajka, an experienced tour operator who deals with the processes daily and whose profits are affected by them, the process has become even more onerous since India outsourced the system.
“You cannot just walk into the consulate and get a visa the way you could before,” he said.
“India is among a handful of countries requiring a visa prior to arrival,” said Sanghrajka. “Of those countries, including off the top of my mind Myanmar, China and Brazil, only India has their system in disarray. Granted they have just changed visa vendors, but their visa processing is more challenging than any other country, and it doesn’t need to be.”
Some other tour operators agree.
“India visas take much too long to secure,” said Robert Drumm, president of Alexander and Roberts. “Both the current and previous outsourcer for visas are a burden to travel companies in servicing guests to India.”
However, there is hope.
Laudie Hanou, vice president of SITA World Tours, told me that the Indian government is considering adopting a new Visa on Arrival that will be made available to tourists from 180 countries.
I consulted India’s Ministry of Tourism and was told that the government is planning to make changes in the system to make it easier to obtain visas and to offer Visa On Arrival as Hanou described. The date the changes will be put into effect is not sure, but they are shooting for year’s end.
So maybe the government is getting the message and will make some welcome changes. However, governments typically take a while to institute change, and the last big change in India’s visa processing system was only three months ago. Certainly there is reason for optimism.
While some immigration screening is necessary, policies that discourage entry into a country are counterproductive. Tourism is too vital an industry, as well as a promoter of cultural exchange and international understanding, for any country to be able to afford to suppress it.