CAMILA WATSON wakes up each morning, heads straight to the Indian high commission’s website and prays for a small miracle: An appointment slot for a visa. As a small tour operator who specialises in tailor-made holidays in India, the last week has been a nightmare for her. She had fallen in love with India when she was backpacking and has passionately recommended the country to others for years.
“The earliest date for an appointment is in the last week of November,” says the London-based Watson. “These delays rule out any last-minute travel around Christmas and limit the business.” They also affect well-laid plans. “It takes about three weeks to process, so if you’re travelling in the first week of December, would you want to take the chance?” she asks.
The e-visa facility for the UK and Canada—which are the largest markets for tourists to India—is still suspended. The Centre had halted the service in March 2020, because of the pandemic.
Additionally, on October 7, the Indian high commission in the UK said it was investigating visa agents who helped facilitate visas for a small fee, and also began enforcing a rule that requires applicants to personally deposit the documents at the VFS centre. In a press release, the high commission said that there were “unauthorised agents and individuals” who were “illegally” charging and “misleading” visa applicants. As agents usually book appointments in advance, individual travellers are not getting slots.
“It is not always easy,” says Watson. “One of my customers lives in northern England. The nearest centre was a couple of hours away by car. They would have had to book a hotel and stay the night to appear for an appointment the next day. Apart from the additional expense incurred, it is a waste of time.”
These centres are in big cities and even at the best of times, tour operators claim, there are very few. “There was a shortage of appointments last year,” said a travel marketing and PR company executive, requesting anonymity. “I had one client who had to fly and was forced to take an appointment in Cardiff even though she was from London.”
In one fell swoop, the order effectively curtailed the travel of thousands of visa applicants. It also led to a flurry of cancellations. “It has been chaotic,” says Yasin Zargar, owner of UK-based Indus Experiences, which has been sending tourists to India for the past 27 years. “Visa agents have been working successfully since the e-visa system was suspended.”
With a bulk of the passports submitted through visa agents, the status of the applications is in limbo. Moreover, there are agents who have already taken the fees and are refusing to refund it. “We were all completely clueless,” says Zargar.
The stakes are high. “The UK market has historically accounted for almost 10 per cent of the inbound traffic to India,” says Aashish Gupta, consulting CEO, Federation of Associations in Tourism and Hospitality. In 2019—the last full-tourism year—close to 1.09 crore foreign visitors came to India, according to industry experts. “Of these, 68 lakh were non-resident Indians,” he says. Over 10 lakh of the total were from the UK, a steady figure which held for 2018 and 2017. The UK also accounts for more than 50 per cent of tourists coming into India from western Europe. Canada accounts for 3.5 lakh tourists a year. “These are the top source markets and the industry is concerned,” says Gupta.
The Indian Association of Tour Operators has written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to restore e-visas for the UK, Canada and other important source countries. In all likelihood, though, the next two months—peak tourism season—will be hit by cancellations.
“This was the time for India to capitalise and diversify our incoming basket,” says Gupta. Especially as China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which accounted for over 10 crore tourists a year, are out of bounds. East Europe, too, is out with the Ukraine crisis, and Sri Lanka is reeling from an economic crisis. “We have been asking the government to target source countries, especially in short-haul areas so that we diversify the market for incoming tourists.”
The clampdown on the “illegal” practice means that it will take a very committed traveller to come to India. “More importantly, it has punctured the confidence in the market,” says Zargar. “If it is such a hassle, people are asking why they should even travel to India. Most of my customers are over 50 and they plan their trips typically eight months in advance. We feel this episode is likely to cloud next year, too.”
Said a travel operator who specialises in off-the-beaten track experiences: “It is very difficult to sell India as a destination to foreign tour operators. It is already a difficult destination and it is easier to just go to Thailand. If we make it tougher, we might lose out totally.”
The Indian high commission, on its part, has clarified that the rules have not changed. “As per established procedure, individual applicants are and always have been required to submit visa application at the VFS centres in person,” reads the press release.
On October 12, the High Commission tweeted a message from High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami. “First, we are ensuring that more bookings are released on our online booking service, and ensuring that these appointments, modules, are not being misused, which has been the case unfortunately, until fairly recently. Second, we are ramping up capacity in partnership with our service provider VFS. This include the following steps. First, we're opening a new visa application centre in Glasgow by early next week. We will be opening a new one in central London, hopefully by the end of the month.... And, we are increasing our capacity at our existing centres, including to handle and receive applications on Saturdays and on afternoons of weekdays as well.... The essence of this effort is to ensure that we go up to about 40,000 visa applications per month, which is a doubling of our existing capacity. We also hear your concerns with regards to the ease of being able to submit applications. We're working on solutions for this with our service provider.”
The winter chill is yet to set in. But for the tourism industry in India, the status is frozen. Already in Pushkar in Rajasthan, which depends on UK tourists, hotels fear that they will have another year of emptiness. This coming at a time when tourist arrivals went from 27.4 lakh in 2020 to 15.2 lakh in 2021 because of the pandemic, as per the India Tourism Statistics 2022. “Cancellations are now coming in,” said an executive who works at a travel marketing and PR company that specialises in the Indian subcontinent, requesting anonymity. “At a time when other destinations are making it easier, we are making it tougher for tourists to come to India.”