November 24, 2022

Visa rule change ruins India holiday plans for thousands | Travel

JThe holiday plans of thousands of travelers are in tatters after the Indian government inexplicably changed its visa rules, requiring applicants to appear in person at processing centres. For many UK passport holders, the first sign of trouble came in an automated message.

Jeannette Findlay from London had booked flights to Delhi with British Airways and connecting flights to Goa departing on November 16. Last Wednesday, she received a text message from third-party visa agency Visa Genie stating that applications must be made in person. We believe this sudden change is unfair to you and potentially very costly.

And nearly impossible to achieve: At the time of writing, all appointments at India‘s nine visa processing centers (VFS) in Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Central London, Hounslow, Leicester and Manchester were sold out until November 18, with no other dates yet indicating availability. A tour operator said the earliest dates it found were mid-December.

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For those who have secured appointments, applying in person is a grim process. Charlotte Lawton from Steppes Travel was at the Hounslow VFS this week. “You must show up 15 minutes before your scheduled appointment,” she said. “They give you a numbered ticket and you then face a wait of two to four hours before being called to submit your application files. I waited two and a half hours, and because my form was in order, the approval and payment process was relatively quick, but one couple was sent back three times to resubmit their forms online. On one occasion it was because they had written ‘Great Britain’ instead of ‘United Kingdom’.

And there are inconsistencies in the process, Lawton said. “A lady came to the door, explained that she had booked a holiday but could not get an appointment and so showed up punctually in the hope that they would let her in. They fired her, telling her to complain to the Indian. High Commission, but then a man came in saying he had an urgent business trip coming up and they let him in.

If you are traveling independently, the inability to get appointments before you depart could waste a lot of your time. For those who have booked packages it means a canceled vacation, but without financial loss, and for tour operators it is yet another costly aftershock of the pandemic.

“Our customers as well as those of all other travel agencies are extremely affected,” said Amrit Singh of TransIndus. “We have customers with non-refundable flights already issued, and this latest news now means further losses and cancellation fees for beleaguered travel agencies. It also eliminates any prospect of rebooking, due to a lack of visa slots.

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India allows citizens of 156 countries to use its e-visa system to apply for and pay for a US-style e-visa. The UK, along with countries like Algeria, Burkina Faso, Lebanon and Pakistan, are excluded, and it’s unclear why. Until this week, UK visitors could still apply for a paper visa by post.

Some believe the rule change is a technical glitch that could be fixed in the coming days. Others point to long-term friction with India over visa reciprocity. If so, Home Secretary Suella Braverman, who has expressed “reservations” about a trade deal with India because it would increase immigration, has not poured oil on those waters.

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We contacted Vikram Doraiswami, the Indian High Commissioner, and G Kishan Reddy, the Minister for Tourism, to ask if the UK exclusion was a matter of policy or an oversight, and if or when British travelers might ask online tourist visas. At the time of this writing, neither had responded.

What is known is that India no longer sees foreigners as the main drivers of its tourism economy. With a burgeoning middle class unable to travel abroad during the pandemic, India has seen a resurgence in domestic tourism, and this has become the center of growth for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As one incoming tour operator put it: ‘Brits are always welcome, but they’re not really needed.’

Meanwhile, visa agencies say they are seeking clarification from the Indian High Commission that appointments made for their representatives at VFS centers may be reassigned to the applicants themselves.

While the High Commission has always advised travelers not to purchase tickets until they have obtained a visa, travel industry advice is to book Indian holidays well in advance, with flights included, and with a bonded tour operator. Not only is your money protected by package travel regulations, but, as Charlotte Dent, Scott Dunn’s head of India, said: “A tour operator can help the customer master the administration. Although we cannot apply for visas on your behalf, our team of experts – who are familiar with the necessary documents – can guide you through the process.

Have you been affected by the rule change? Would you like to book an Indian holiday now? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.