Breaking the visa barrier

How does it feel to roast in Dubai’s summer sun, while dressed up in your business suit? I found out first hand as I was at the end of beeline at 8am outside a Far Eastern Consulate (that shall not be named) and the gates opened only at 9am. When I finally got in, I had to wait in a small, suffocating room with not enough chairs for everyone, for about three hours before my number, 117, was finally called out. Then I was told that the visa forms I had downloaded – from the consulate’s official website – were redundant.

In a world of increasing popularity of the eVisa, where do we stand as an industry when it comes to enabling customers, easing their travel plan?

For sure, eVisa is one of the hottest topics at global travel industry meets and is seen as a key intervention to push tourism numbers – it is often a point raised by operators, tourism authority representatives and suppliers at WTTC events – I can vouch for that.

Schengen entry is consolidated with a specialist like VFS, and they are always churning out bigger numbers, in terms of branch expansion, in terms of more countries being handled and, of course, number of applications processed. The days of diplomatic missions handling tourist visas is definitely past their prime.

Last-minute travel planners should still be able to procure a visa, without having to physically undertake the tedious application process at respective diplomatic missions. India made a bold move and opened up its eVisa, which was launched in November 2014, making it convenient for citizens of 150 countries to arrive at 16 international airports in India using eVisa service. Year on year, they saw three-fold increase in tourism numbers comparing monthly arrivals.

When Azerbaijan opened up, UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai said, 'Azerbaijan’s decision is the recognition of how visa facilitation can be a key measure to promote tourism in a country. This new system encourages travel to Azerbaijan and will lead to further development of the country´s tourism sector through the increase of international tourism flows.'

Security and the increasing refugee problem pose a serious threat towards visa-free travel though. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said that Turkey would be granted visa-free travel to European Union countries from October 1 this year, if Ankara meets all the requirements, including reforming anti-terror laws.

'The question of visa-free travel, which is directly connected to the agreement on handling refugees, can be implemented on October 1 only if all the conditions are met,' Juncker told the European Alpbach forum, an annual conference in Austria late last month.

Meanwhile, many agencies have taken the initiative to go ahead and consolidate their service portfolio with visa processing service, and that is something I would love to see take off across the board. How can you be your customer’s go-to advisor without being around for the last mile planning process, namely visa application and onboarding?

Cox and Kings Global Services, a wing of the well-known parent brand handles Italy visas (Schengen) for all Dubai and Northern Emirate residents in the UAE. They are proud of their other visa processing support services, with the claim, 'We render outsourced services to The Embassy of India, Berlin, Consulate General of India, Munich, Embassy of India, Greece, Consulate General of India, Hong Kong, Embassy of India, Sweden & Latvia, Dubai Visa in India, Royal Thai Consulate General for Western India, Norwegian Embassy in India and has served High Commission of Singapore, India from 2008-2012.'

Agents handling Haj packages do support with the procurement of visa and that’s a fair start. And plenty are vying for inbound visa services, Dubai being the most popular destination where agents offer visa for visits up to 90 days. This has definitely been a successful private-public partnership wherein Dubai government entities, led by the tourism department are taking down traditional barriers.

Look at Emirates offering visa processing service for their customers – it’s a ground-breaking move that has thousands of takers every day. Several hotels are in the game too, like Golden Tulip Dibba that facilitates 'cross-border-hop’ visa between the UAE and Oman for their guests, making the visit easy as a breeze.

And that’s what travel should be: easy and peaceful.

By Rashi Sen