For several months, almost a year, almost every tourism stakeholder in India, travel agents, airlines, travellers and countless others, have been raising serious concerns about the unprecedented delays in processing visas for numerous western destinations, notably the United States, Canada and the Schengen countries, that have now extended to years, instead of a couple of weeks as earlier.
The situation of tourist visa for the US is specially and ridiculously long – extending to almost 800 days or almost 26 months just for the first visa appointment to take place, let alone delivery of the visa. Leaders of the travel industry in India, notably Jyoti Mayal, President of Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), which is the oldest and largest association of the travel agents in the country, have taken it up at the highest levels, both in India and overseas.
Another travel agents association, Outbound Tour Operators Association of India (OTOAI) has also raised the issue with the foreign missions in India asking them to ease the visa processes and remove the uncertainty and delays caused by the bottlenecks.
On a recent visit to the United States, the Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar also took up the issue of the delays with his US counterpart, Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Almost simultaneously, two members of the United States Congress have also raised the issue with the administration of US President Joe Biden. In what would certainly sound as sweet music to the ears of the Indian tourism US Congresswoman Dina Titus, co-chair of the Congressional Travel and Tourism Caucus and Congressman Gus Bilirakis have reached out to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas in a letter requesting improvements for visa processing in an effort to generate greater international visitation to the US.
The lawmakers point out that many travel businesses rely on H-2B and J-1 visas to meet short-term and seasonal workforce demands and that current wait times, more than 400 days on average for an appointment in the top 10 countries for inbound travel to the US, have travel businesses facing a shortage of international visitors and the temporary workers they need to generate a quick recovery in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
‘‘To ensure international visitation can fully resume, we urge you to take steps to restore visa processing operations to pre-pandemic levels, reduce the backlog of appointments, and lower visa wait times as soon as possible,’’ the two members of the Congress have written.
‘‘Limited visa processing capacity and extended wait times discourage inbound travel, reduce visitor spending, and disrupt the reopening of American businesses,’’ they add.
The two lawmakers have included a number of suggestions that would ease the process and cut the delays dramatically. These include conducting group appointments, piloting videoconferencing technology and prioritising resources for embassies and consulates with the highest demand such as Mexico, Brazil and India. They say that by taking these basic steps, the US would position itself to welcome an additional 2.2 million international visitors contributing an additional USD 5.2 billion to the US economy over a period as brief as six months, they highlight in the letter.
The issue is indeed creating waves in the US also where the tourism industry feels cut out from the boom in international tourism that has gripped the entire world for the past six months, with record jumps in visitors registered by numerous countries ranging from Spain to Vietnam and Turkey to Thailand. In anticipation of encashing on the unexpected and unprecedented boom in tourism traffic, many other countries have already eased their visa processes, attracting Indian tourists and travel agents tired of waiting for the Schengen countries or North America, which are the worst offenders in the visa processing timelines.
The US tourism is reacting to the delays and asking for urgent intervention. ‘‘Today’s extraordinary visa delays tell qualified visitors to go away,’’ US Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement. ‘‘It is embarrassing, costing our economy dearly and past time for the Biden administration to solve the problem. Thank you to the almost 60 bipartisan lawmakers that recognise that we can – and must – do better,’’ Freeman adds.
Meanwhile, the US administration, with its back to the wall, has reportedly told the Indian minister that it has a plan to solve the visa backlog for Indians in the next few months.
‘‘We had constraints from Covid-19 about the number of people we could have in our embassies at any one time etc. We are now building back very determined really from that surging resources. We have a plan when it comes to India to address the backlog of visas that have built up. I think you’ll see that play out in the coming months,’’ Blinken said in a press briefing at the end of Jaishankar’s visit.
“Bear with us. This will play out over the next few months but we are very focused on it,’’ Blinken added.
The statements may have come late, almost too late for the year 2022 as far as Indian travel fraternity is concerned, but it is certainly help them plan for a better and more organised travel season in 2023.