It’s the worst feeling when the trip that you’ve planned for months on end is in jeopardy because of annoying visa complications. For those of you with British passports, it might be hard to relate to what I am saying because you hardly need a visa to go anywhere in the world (except to come back to your own homeland, India maybe)! But unlike you guys, for most of us stuck with that little blue booklet the Indian government issues us with, the nightmare of international travel doesn’t begin at the airport, with body scanners and baggage problems. Getting a visa, that elusive little stamp, is the first big hurdle to be crossed. Indians, like most citizens of third world nations, need a visa to go everywhere (except maybe Sri Lanka or Nepal where it can be stamped upon arrival) and very often, a lot of us simply give up on the idea of going abroad because of the big bureaucratic nightmare involved.
Of course my passion for travel far outweighs any mental agony I might have to brave this lengthy process. So this week I set out with a swagger in my stride to 23 Belgrave Square, i.e. the German Embassy in London, to get a Schengen visa for a European holiday I had planned with my family. I was confident that after having complied with the massive list of documents they’d asked for, (air tickets, travel insurance, letter of employment, bank statements for the last 3 months, 2 photographs with exact specifications, letter of invitation from my cousin residing in Switzerland, hotel bookings and bookings for internal train/car/taxi travel within the Schengen zone. Whew!!) there would be no reason to worry. How wrong I was!
As I walked to the counter with glee on my face, the brisk woman at the counter suspiciously checked each document carefully, and after promptly taking 53 pounds from me (yes, that’s the visa fee!) said it would be at her supervisor’s discretion whether or not to grant me entry. Apparently some bizarre rule in the Schengen agreement states that you need to apply for a visa not at the embassy of the country which is your first point of entry (in my case it was Germany), but at the embassy of the country where you will spend the longest part of your vacation (Switzerland in my case), so I should have applied there.
This is probably the most convoluted way of going about what should be a quick and easy process. But leave aside the rules for a minute. What irked me was the fact that they were accepting applications (and the fees), and then saying the visa might not be granted. If it doesn’t fall under your rules and regulations, why accept the application in the first place? Why not tell me, sorry sir but you will have to go to the Swiss embassy instead? I can’t think of this as anything but a shoddy underhand way of making money from unsuspecting tourists. God alone knows how many rejections they hand out every day so that people can reapply and pay the hefty administrative fee again! The US consulate does it brazenly. Several members of my family for instance have been refused a visa for the first time, no questions asked, only to be granted a 10-year multiple entry permit after applying again!
At a time when Europe is going through probably the worst economic recession in its history, the revenues and foreign exchange it could earn from prospective tourists like me would go a long way in helping them claw their way out of the mess they are in. Some reports suggest a dramatic 130% rise in outbound tourists from India between 2006 and 2011. In fact the total number of Indian tourists going abroad is set to cross the 16 million mark by next year alone. That’s a 4th of Britain’s population! Maybe it is time to encourage us with an easier and friendlier approach, rather than daunt us with a barrage of ridiculous demands. I can understand being vigilant is important, especially in these times of international terrorism, but complicating visa procedures for innocent applicants without any history of any wrongdoing is only going to discourage this healthy trend of global mobility we are seeing.
I have been warned by several online travel forums and travel agents to be prepared for my first ‘REJECTED’ stamp which would stain my clean ‘visa history’ up till now. This would compel me to disclose, on every application I make in the future, that I’ve ever been refused a visa previously, in effect biasing the issuer.
Tuesday morning is when the big suspense will end. Hope I get it!