New Delhi: The ongoing season of international travel in India has been marked by long waits for tourist visas to Europe, especially countries like Greece, ThePrint has learnt.
Applications for a Schengen visa usually take around 15 days to process, or 30 days in busy periods. But this has stretched far beyond four weeks now due to high volumes of visa applications and limited appointment availability, say tourism industry leaders.
According to them, this is mostly due to an uptick in demand since Covid restrictions were removed, and shortage of staff at embassies of destination countries.
“The wait for visas is especially long for Schengen countries, especially Greece, Denmark, France and Switzerland. Some travellers have been waiting 2-3 months to get visas to Greece,” Jyoti Mayal, president of the Travel Agents Association of India (TAAI), told ThePrint.
“Apart from the demand, embassies aren’t equipped with enough staff. During the pandemic, the manpower was cut down and now they are having trouble building up the number of staff again because not all can be recruited locally,” she added.
According to TAAI, the number of visa applications to Europe and UK — for tourism, business trips, student visas and long-term stays — is “at least 20 per cent” more than it was in 2019. India scrapped its two-year ban on international passenger flights on 27 March this year. The ban was first imposed on 23 March 2020 in view of the pandemic, albeit air bubble arrangements with certain countries were in place.
Sanjay Dang, managing director at international travel agency Uniglobe Le Travelworld, said 75 per cent of his current clients are planning trips to Europe for tourism and business purposes. According to him, the surge in demand could have something to do with many European countries starting to allow entry of Covaxin-vaccinated travellers since November last year.
“Last November, about 10-12 EU (European Union) countries accepted Covaxin as vaccine proof for travel. Many Indian travellers were keen to travel, but then the Omicron wave began. That’s why we are seeing an uptick in demand now — the Omicron wave is over and the summer season has started,” he told ThePrint.
‘20,000 visa applications from India a day’
While embassies have the authority to approve or reject visas and decide timelines for visa appointments, they outsource the administrative part of visa processing — like biometric scanning and collating of documents — to third-party firms like VFS Global.
VFS Global, headquartered in Dubai, has a presence in 17 Indian cities.
In an email to ThePrint, the company said it is currently receiving approximately 20,000 applications from India in a day — close to pre-pandemic levels — but could not provide a percentage of how many are specifically for Europe.
The facilitator clarified that it only manages the “administrative” and “non-judgmental aspects” of the visa application process.
VFS Global “follows the standard operating procedure of processing applications in one business day”, the email further said.
Embassies grapple with staff shortage
Meanwhile, some embassies have temporarily suspended all new visa appointments due to shortage of staff.
For example, in an automatic mailer, the Embassy of Denmark stated: “Due to shortage of staff, absence and an unforeseen increase in the number of applications, the Embassy of Denmark in New Delhi temporarily suspends all new appointment at VFS. From 1 July and until further notice, no appointment slots will be available at VFS. Red Carpet Program walk-in is suspended with immediate effect.”
The Red Carpet Program offers simplified visa procedures for applicants who travel regularly to Denmark for business purposes.
Industry players told ThePrint that other embassies, like France and Switzerland, are only offering visa appointment dates in July.
More applications in March-June than in ‘all of 2021’
In an email to ThePrint, a spokesperson from the Embassy of Italy said they have received 11,500 new applications between 1 March and 7 June this year — 37 per cent more than the applications they received in all of 2021.
“In the whole of 2021, the number of visas processed by the Embassy has been about 8,400. This means that in three months, the Embassy has processed 37 per cent more visa applications than in the whole year of 2021,” the email further said.
Out of 11,500 new applications in March-June, 4,000 are for Schengen visas and 7,500 are for long-stay visas.
“In 2019, during the same period (1 March to 7 June), the embassy processed about 20,000 applications. It has to be noted though, that over 17,000 of them were Schengen visas, which are quicker to process. Only 2,800 (vs 7,500 in 2022) were national visas, which require a more complex procedure. Moreover, the Embassy was slightly more staffed in 2019,” stated the embassy in its email.
The Italian embassy currently has 15 full-time employees, it added.
To keep up with the surge in applications from India, some countries like Greece have announced that they will start hiring more embassy staff in New Delhi. Meanwhile, many Indian travellers continue to suffer financial losses after having to cancel trips or reschedule flights due to visa delays.
Rahul Hirani, a Chennai-based business executive who is planning a trip to three European countries, says he has rescheduled his flight two times since 11 May while waiting for a response from the Greek embassy in New Delhi.
“I applied for a Schengen visa on 11 May, that too with a VFS Premium Service. I was planning to land in Greece on 5 June, then head to Switzerland and the Netherlands. But due to visa delays, I’ve had to reschedule my flight twice,” he told ThePrint.
This article has been updated to remove the number of active VFS Global visa facilitation centres in the country.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)