FRANCE had been on the bucket list of Rashmi Sharma, a Mohali-based architect, for a long time. About two weeks back when she got down to apply for a Schengen visa for her family on the VFS Global (Visa Facilitation Services Global) website, to her surprise, June 5 was the earliest appointment availability to submit her documents. A Schengen visa is a short-stay (up to 90 days) visa that allows a person to travel to any member of the 27-country Schengen Area of Europe for tourism or business purposes. Realising that even if she gets the appointment, her visa approval could take another 15-20 days, she dropped the idea of travelling to France. Rashmi instead applied for a UK visa, which was showing a slot availability within the next few days. She, along with her husband and daughter, have submitted the documents and are now awaiting a decision from the UK High Commission. “I wanted to travel in June since my daughter, who is also studying architecture, has her holidays then. My husband and I are looking forward to this much-needed vacation with our daughter before she gets busy with her examinations.”
Some countries have told us about difficulties due to Covid and staff shortages and said they are taking steps to shorten the visa waiting period. We have seen changes in the last few months. — Arindam Bagchi, MEA Spokesperson
June is the month when most Indian families plan a vacation. European countries remain a much-favoured travel destination. “Around April, almost after the school board exams get over, I start getting 70-80 queries each day for holiday bookings to Europe and UK,” says Vinay Arora of Around The Globe (ATG) Holidays, a Delhi-based travel agency. “Switzerland, France, Germany and Spain remain top favourites. However, most of my clients are now planning for alternative summer destinations due to the non-availability of appointment dates for the submission of documents for the Schengen visa at VFS offices. The appointments for Switzerland are taking at least a month while no dates are showing for Germany, Spain, Italy and France. Canada and the UK are faring much better, both in appointment allocation as well as the issuing of visas.” says Vinay.
With an appointment availability in less than a week and the processing of visas getting completed within 15 days, the UK visa, which also offers priority and super priority visit service for more urgent travel requirements, is among the most sought-after. According to a spokesperson of the British High Commission, “The UK continues to be a popular destination for Indian travellers. In 2022, Indian travellers received 30 per cent of all UK visit visas issued globally, 41 per cent of all student visas, and nearly 1,20,000 work visas.”
“How is the UK able to process so many appointments while the Schengen countries, where the tourist traffic is divided among 27 nations, hardly have any appointment availability?” asks Sukant Nain Trivedi of Jalandhar-based Trivedi Overseas. “It is not as if there has been a drastic increase in the number of persons applying for a holiday to Europe; nor is there any shortfall of infrastructure. Rather, the VFS has increased its operations all over the country. So why this unavailability of appointments for documents submission at VFS centres?” he says. The appointment waiting period for some countries is beyond reasoning, he adds. “For instance, the waiting period for the US B1 tourist visa is between eight months and one year. So, if you want to plan a trip in 2024, you need to apply now. Similarly, Malta, where a lot of Indian students go to study, is one of the very few English-speaking European countries. That too has a waiting period of six months.”
It is not just the availability of appointments that is an issue. Technical glitches due to heavy traffic flow on these websites are very common, complains Gurugram-based IT professional Shaurya Luthra. “Many a time, the appointment date that is visible in the beginning of the application form doesn’t show by the time the form is filled. The entire form has to be then filled again since there is no provision to save data.”
“Due to the peak season demand, appointment slots may get full in a very short time with hundreds of applicants trying to book the same appointment,” says Vishal Jairath, Head, South Asia, VFS Global. “The availability of appointment slots is at the sole discretion of the respective governments we serve. VFS Global manages only the administrative and non-judgmental aspects of the visa application process. Visa appointments are available online on a first-come, first-serve basis. We use several measures to prevent fraudulent use by third-party entities who try to book bulk appointments,” he says, adding that its standard turnaround time of processing visa applications is one business day to send to respective embassies/consulates for decision-making.
“Countries like Turkey, Vietnam, Singapore, Dubai and Malaysia, which have a visa processing time of less than a week, are emerging as alternative tourist destinations. Maldives, Indonesia and Thailand, which offer visa-on-arrival facilities, continue to enjoy patronage,” says Rajesh Kumar Kapil of Chandigarh-based Kapil Travels. He adds that since the rising fuel costs have added to an increase in airfares, the destinations closer home offer much more viable alternatives. For instance, despite its unfriendly weather, Dubai (UAE) has been finding favour with holiday-makers for the past four to five years. It is offering diverse attractions at one place, besides a shorter and less expensive flight route.
Similarly, Vietnam has been able to capture a major share of outbound tourists from India. Direct flights lasting less than five hours, more than 20 non-stop air routes and over 60 flights a week, have made this Southeast Asian country the preferred holiday destination in the past couple of years. The first 10 months of 2022 saw as many as 82,066 Indian travellers reaching Vietnam, indicating a monthly average growth rate of 51 per cent. Its nominal visa processing fee of Rs 3,000, besides faster visa processing time of two to three days, is light on the budget. The holiday budget tends to go up when any of these countries increase their visa fee. For instance, the visa fee for Turkey was less than Rs 4,000 till a few years ago. It has gone up to Rs 17,000, and includes a mandatory insurance of Rs 5,000. “The good thing is there is high success rate of the Turkey visa, which is popular for destinations like Istanbul, Cappadocia and Antalya,” says Kapil.
At a time when international borders have opened and most countries have relaxed post-Covid norms, a Schengen visa or not, there’s no stopping Indian holiday-makers from packing their bags to destinations that they had been putting on hold for long. Till then, Europe can remain on the bucket list.
Visa application volumes more than doubled in 2022
- The country saw 85.5 lakh Indian nationals’ departure in 2021, reveal Tourism Statistics 2022 issued by the Union Ministry of Tourism. Out of these, leisure holiday and recreational travel constituted 42.1 per cent.
- Visa application volume from India across various categories touched around 80 per cent of the 2019 pre-pandemic level last year. When compared with 2021, visa application volumes more than doubled in 2022, says the VFS Global spokesperson.
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