An Australia tourism watchdog says the country’s visa processing bottlenecks have forced India’s travel agents to stop recommending the destination despite strong demand from Indian visitors.

It further warns that unless these processing delays are rectified, Australia could lose the chance of welcoming an influx of cricket-crazy Indians to the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup, which it is hosting next year.

The Australian Tourism Export Council, a body that advocates for policies that strengthen tourism’s future, said while official data from Tourism Research Australia shows the Indian market grew 18 percent in 2018, it believes the rate has softened in the current year. The council has revised growth expectations down to between 10 and 12 percent, figures last seen in 2016.

“The Australian tourism industry is hamstrung by visa processing bottlenecks and we are particularly concerned about the potential impact this situation will have on next year’s ICC T20 Cricket World Cup, a time when we are looking to benefit from an influx of Indian cricketing enthusiasts,” the council’s managing director, Peter Shelley said.

“Processing delays for the Indian market have become so dire that we are now aware travel agents are discouraging holidays in Australia as they see a real risk that visa applications will either be knocked back or not processed quickly enough.

“With these signs of softening Indian market, we are seeing just how easily brand Australia can be damaged by an inefficient visa system.”

Visa inefficiencies

Shelley said on the ground reports suggest Indian visa approval timelines have slipped to over three weeks with inconsistencies like children being granted visas where parents are refused, or where one visa in a group is processed quickly while others take more than three weeks.

Indian travel agencies interviewed by Skift agree there are these issues, however none have stopped recommending Australia.

One agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said he recently had a case where a couple traveling with their son had his visa approved a day before departure while theirs were approved five days earlier.

“It was a nail-biting wait for the boy and their parents. No parents would leave their kid behind and they didn’t know if they were going on a holiday or not until the last day [before departure]. We had to really push hard to secure the visa,” he said.

Munind Shah, director, The Travel Planners India, believes the bottlenecks that some agents face could be due to their lack of understanding on how to apply for visas online correctly, for instance, the need to create a group ID so applications are processed together.

“You can get the visa approved within a week to 10 days, if you get all the documentation right. But this summer, it is really slow,” said Shah.

Apart from lack of training on proper filing, another reason could be a rise in online visa applications from agents as more became aware of the facility and noted that online applications would be given priority.

Though introduced since July 2017, some agents continue to lodge paper applications. Tourism Australia recently reminded them paper applications would “neither be escalated nor be accorded any priority.”

But Australian Tourism Export Council’s Shelley pointed out that the investment in the system “had not been enough to really enable efficiencies, and the lack of communication avenues for agents means there is just nowhere to turn for advice or assistance.”

Getting Faster

In a letter to Indian agents on June 14, obtained by Skift, Tourism Australia assured them that the Department of Home Affairs at the Australian High Commission “is proactively reducing the timelines for Australian tourist and business visas.”

It pointed out that timeframes had already reduced significantly and were continuing to reduce.

“In May 2019, 60 percent of all visas were finalized in three business days and 90 percent were finalized in less than 20 days,” it said.

Its recommendations for agents to help reduce the processing time indicate areas they typically miss out, although it must be said these requirements look bloody tedious, to use a local lingo. They include:

— Agents should create a group ID for a family, group of friends, and even a couple, so that their applications are processed together. If the applications are not grouped, they may be treated as single travelers, thereby increasing the chances of different visa outcomes.

— Applications for all kids/minors under the age of 18 who are not applying with both parents must be supported by a form called Form 1229, which must be signed by both parents, along with appropriate supporting documents to allow for verification of signatures of both parents. The list of documents include passport, drivers license, or PAN card.

— In providing evidence of previous travel history, it is important to scan all previously secured visas, entry and exit stamp into other countries, or arrival stamp into home country, to establish previous outbound travel history

— In providing sufficient financial evidence to support the holiday spend, if a three-month bank statement does not evidence sufficient funds, then other forms of evidence to support financial capacity, such as fixed deposits, ownership of assets, investments in shares/bonds/mutual funds/public provident fund/land, et cetera, must be provided to support the clients’ travel.

“It is often observed that the annual income of an individual supporting the family’s holiday [is] not enough to cover the expenses for an Australian holiday. In such cases, it is important to provide additional documents that support the affluence and financial status of the traveler. Merely stating in the covering letter that the ‘client is known to us’ is not a good enough reason for HA [Home Affairs] to grant a visa. It has to be substantiated with necessary evidence for wealth and incentive to return to India.”

20 Days and Cricket

On Tourism Australia’s point that 60 percent of all visas were finalized in three business days and 90 percent in less than 20 days, agents said for the former, a category such as business visas could account for the achievement.

The latter is a bit troubling, as 20 days is a long time to get a visa.

“Twenty days to get a visa is a bit too long. Not all Indians plan their travel six months in advance. Many make last-minute decisions, when funds are available,” said an agent.

“Look at Singapore, which wants more Indian tourists. For Singapore, a visa turnaround time of three days for Indians is already too much. If it takes 20 days for Singapore to issue a visa, figures from India will really go down.

“Australia invests a lot in marketing in India, it should also make sure that people can get there quickly. If there’s a problem, the word-of-mouth will spread it and that’s not encouraging for bookings.”

The Travel Planners’ Shah agrees, adding if Australia takes 20 days to do a visa, it could indeed affect the number of Indians traveling for the Cricket World Cup. “This is last-minute travel. Indians will watch how their teams are performing. If they are dong well, they would definitely want to go and see a few matches. By the time you get a visa, chances are it’d be over,” he said.

The event will take place across eight host cities in Australia, Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Geelong, Hobart, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, from February 21 to March 8 (women’s) and October 18 to November 15 (men’s). Australia could perhaps look at other solutions, such as “less vetting” for clients who have already secured a U.S. visa or a U.K. visa, suggests Shah.

Cricket is a draw for Indians. Britain is expecting around 80,000 Indians for the Cricket World Cup this year which is happening from May 30 to July 14. It saw a spurt in visa applications — more than 3,500 applications a day from India was common — according to an article in The Times of India. It worked with visa services partner VFS Global to keep up its 2018 record of processing 97 percent of all applications within 15 working days.

VFS Global’s chief communications officer Peter Brun told Skift, would not guesstimate numbers for the event next year but said this year, “we have seen good numbers for Australia.”

The Australian Tourism Export Council’s assertions that Indian agents are discouraging clients to travel to Australia may be overblown. But it has raised a long-standing issue. In Shelley’s words, “It’s such a paradox when we have a government and the industry driving positive messages to encourage more visitors from a range of markets, yet one silo of government is putting up barriers.”

Photo Credit: India is fanatical about World Cup cricket play. Tourism Victoria / Flckr