Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

9 Nov, 2011

Europe Visa Process “Worse Than Tax Audit” – Indian Tour Operator

Imtiaz Muqbil at the WTM 2011 in London

The executive director of one of India’s major tour operators has blasted the UK and European visa application process as being “worse than an IRS audit” and said they would have to find ways of simplifying the process and clearing out its inconsistencies if they wished to attract Indian visitors.

Mr Peter Kerkar of Cox & Kings made the comments on Nov 8 during the annual UNWTO and WTM Ministers summit which focussed on the theme “How Tourism Can Prosper In Times of Uncertainty.” Although a range of issues were discussed, there was no room for doubt about the new emerging world order, as ministers and senior executives from a number of Asian, Arab, African and Latin American countries ripped into European visa policies, travel advisories, security hassles and the UK Air Passenger Duty.

The European travel industry which has for years harangued the receiving countries in the so-called developing world about everything from consumer protection rights to environmental regulations is set to discover that accountability is a two-way street.

The frustrations are important in the broader context of policy issues which many political and economic leaders in the developing countries feel smacks of a return to the colonial era. The patience with double-standards and hypocrisy in Western policy-making is running thin. Travel is just one sector, and the visa bottlenecks are just one component.

Palpable Anger

Indeed, the anger is palpable because in many developing countries, the lop-sided visa policies mean that all the worst of European undesirables, ranging from mafia gangsters to football hooligans, paedophiles to right-wing terrorists enjoy the privilege of walking into many developing countries without a visa while even the most respected citizens of developing countries have to deal with the cumbersome and complicated visa processes of Europe and UK, not to mention the United States, Canada and Australia.

Setting the stage for the discussion, UN World Tourism Organisation Secretary-General Dr Taleb Rifai said, “When we (the UNWTO and WTM) started to prepare this year’s summit in early January the title chosen was “How tourism can prosper following the global downturn? As is often the case we were overtaken by the events; and from “following the downturn” we moved into “times of uncertainty”.

“This is an example of the framework in which we operate today – change happens by the day and we need to be prepared. We are not here to do futurology – many before us have tried and failed but to share our views on how, knowing we will continue to live with an uncertain economic landscape, continued geopolitics shifts and other events beyond prediction, can the tourism sector advance and continue to grow?

Dr Rifai noted that global economic challenges are significant. “There is a risk of recession in advances economies while growth is moderating in emerging markets; unemployment continues at unacceptable high levels; consumers and investors face mounting difficulties, and more importantly, the political will and coordination born out of the G20 London Summit in 2009 was still absent from Cannes last week where world leaders although agreeing to a common plan on growth and jobs still failed to show a strong commitment to jointly address these challenges.”

Right Side of History

It helps to have at least a few Europeans who are firmly standing on the right side of history. That came in the form of Mr Trond Giske, Minister of Trade and Industry from Norway, who was attending the UNWTO-WTM summit for the first time, and made some of the most forthright, frank and forward-thinking comments.

He did not mince words about the economic challenges facing Europe. While in the past, European governments could deal with economic problems by increasing demand and lowering interest rates, “these two tools are not available any more,” Mr Giske said. “There is a big difference between companies going bankrupt than countries going bankrupt,” he said. “Even profitable projects can’t find finance as banks are out of liquidity.”

He said that Europe needs “solid, transparent financial institutions to solve the crisis. These institutions are not there.” Furthermore, the situation in Greece is already a threat and if the “markets stop believing in Spanish or Italian bonds”, there could be even further trouble. However, he added, European leaders have a way of coming up with last-minute solutions.”

Much of the discussion focussed on the economic importance of tourism in national development agendas, and the rise of the new source-markets, specifically the BRIC countries (Brazil, India, China and Russia). There was a general agreement that if the Europeans wish to attract these markets, especially India and China, they will have to change their marketing strategies and methods in ways they have never done before.

The South African Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk noted that three things would need to be fixed in order for tourism to prosper: visa problems, a revamping of the archaic Chicago convention (an ICAO agreement which covers the global aviation industry), and the involvement of poor communities in tourism. He said that in an era when everyone was a “citizen of the Internet”, there was a need to move forward with issuance of electronic visas that would be less costly and far more convenient. The security issues can be dealt with.

The Chicago convention, crafted 64 years ago, was all about regulating aviation on the basis of bilateral deals and reciprocal access. Now, he said, “bilateralism is dead and we need system that reflects that.” As for the poor communities, he said, he said that it was important for tourism to be developed more equitably so that it does not lead to “islands of poverty” amidst seas of prosperity. All across the developing world, poor communities are being excluded from tourism. Finding ways to take them along “will make huge qualitative intervention.” He got a round of applause.

Humiliating Process

Picking up on the visa issue, Mr Peter Kerkar blasted the cumbersome visa applications process that Indians are required to undergo for a visit to Europe. “It’s worse than an IRS audit,” he said. Citing the huge volume of information required about the applicant’s personal, professional, educational and financial status, he added, the “humiliation of this process is incredible. And then there is no consistency in terms of rejection. If a family applies, the father and two children may be accepted but the mother will be rejected. There is no explanation.”

Why are we still stopping people from travelling? he asked, calling on the Europeans to stop seeing Indians and visitors from the BRIC countries all as potential illegal immigrants. “We don’t want to leave our countries, we love our countries. We just want to visit yours.”

The chairman of the Qatar Tourism Authority Mr Ahmed Abdulla Al Nuaimi concurred, noting that many Gulf citizens were now visiting Asia instead because of the visa restrictions in Europe.

The UK Airline Passenger Duty was the subject of numerous attacks, especially the African countries. The Gambian tourism minister said that with so many economies dependent on travel & tourism for jobs and income, any decline in arrivals due to the APD could impact on internal peace and stability.

The Kenyan Tourism Minister Najib Balala backed the issue of clearing up visa bottlenecks, but also blasted the travel advisories which he said never seemed to change to reflect the real situation on the ground. “They make it look as if we are always under constant threat of terrorism.” He also criticised the APD, which he said is now having an economic impact that exceeds the amount of aid and development assistance the UK is giving.”

The Nigerian tourism minister also weighed in on the travel advisories which he described as being “one daunting challenge.” He also attacked the security apparatus and creeping racial profiling. “Our citizens are humiliated at virtually every airport of the world. I don’t see any justification for treating every one of us according to the standards of a few thousand miscreants in a land of millions of people.”

The Uganda minister joined the attack. “They remove my hat, shoes, jacket, belt under the guise of security, if you ask why, they say it is for your own security.” He said the assumption that “most of want to migrate has become almost a phobia. How can we reach out to our colleagues and get them to understand that freedom to travel is like a human right and we must balance the issue of security against the need for promoting tourism.”

What About the Action

Martin Craigs, the new CEO of PATA, called on the participants to get out of their comfort zones and follow up the talk with action. “Talking to yourselves is easy. Combatting the politicians is difficult,” he said. Having met the UK tourism minister at a dinner one evening, he said he had taken up the issue of the APD and been asked to write the minister a letter about it. He said he would be happy to write the letter but “I would be even happier if all (the panel participants) would co-sign it or at least agree to be copied in on it.”

Finally, it was the remarks of the Norwegian minister that went to the root of the problem. He suggested that Europe was losing sight of the advantages of multi-culturalism in a globalised world. “One of the biggest threats to this industry is xenophobia and intolerance,” he said, adding that multi-culturalism was a huge resource for Europe. “Why are we not taking advantage of this? If we don’t take advantage, we wont be able to profit.” When internal racial and cultural problems break out, it is the local people who suffer more than the tourists.

To better understand why the Norwegian minister feels so strongly about this issue, and why his words need to be taken seriously by the entire travel industry in the years to come, click here. He sounded an early warning alert par excellence.