The last quarter has witnessed intermittent activity for the international travel community, with borders opening sporadically in step with vaccination drives in various regions. While many of us look forward to travelling in 2021, the restart of visa application processes can happen only when the concerned Embassy/Consulate provides approval and directs the Visa Application Centre to do so.
VFS Global, the world’s largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide, headquartered in Dubai, UAE is a leading visa services organisation. Keeping you apprised of the re-openings of Visa Application Centres in India, and other efforts currently undertaken according to the regulations set by governments, it has resumed the visa application process (in various categories) for over 40 governments at select Visa Application Centres across India. VFS Global’s Visa Application Centres across India remained open as of 07 April 2021, though timings and days of working may have varied, according to pandemic-related regulations. Some countries may have limited slots opened for appointments at present and only in certain cities.
In an exclusive interview, Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group Chief Operating Officer (South Asia, Middle East & North Africa and Americas), VFS Global speaks to IANSlife about travel in 2021 and what we can look forward to in the months to come.
When do you expect international travel to resume, and what can one expect for the rest of 2021?
Vinay: The beginning of 2021 bought hope for the travel sector, but this joy was short-lived with the virus rearing its head in the form of the second wave in many regions, resulting in border closures and travel restrictions being re-imposed. While it is difficult to predict the exact timeline for the resumption of international travel, it is safe to say that travel, having weathered similar shocks in the past, will bounce back soon.
Streamlined inoculation drives, issuance of vaccine passports and health certificates, well executed travel bubbles, etc. across geographies will only streamline travel processes further and help in holistically rebuilding the sector that safeguards travellers through their journeys. People are keen to travel as soon as they possibly can; pent-up demand and new dimensions of health considerations are going to be strong driving forces for the sector to rally. Though travel remains a mid-and long-term growth sector, one can expect a complete recovery only once we’ve addressed and overcome our current challenges with future-proof solutions.
With the second wave, India has received a lot of negative press for how it has handled the situation, do you think this will impact inbound tourism in the months to come?
Vinay: India has always remained a key market for travel and tourism. With a heterogeneous portfolio comprising niche tourism products, such as adventure, cruise, medical, wellness, sports, eco-tourism, film, and religious tourism, inbound tourism is a key contributor to the growth of the travel sector. For travellers today, safety and health are a key consideration, and for India it is important to first control the Covid transmission risk through a strong vaccination drive which the government is already working towards.
Along with vaccination, developing a strong infrastructure backed by technology that offers maximum contactless experiences throughout the travel journey will play a key role in bringing back the trust and confidence among tourists planning their visit to India.
With the fundamental need for people to travel still intact, with a strong health infrastructure and safety measures, this market will hit the road to recovery once borders reopen.
Tourism rebound, realistic or wishful thinking? Do you have a timeline in mind and why ?
Vinay: Over the last six months, we have seen travel gain hope with gradual re-opening of borders, travel bubbles and vaccination drives in progress. However, this also evolved to a complete shutdown as the second wave of infections hit more fiercely in some regions. Historically, travel industry has been a resilient force that has endured many such adversities and bounced back effectively, be it economic meltdowns, terror attacks or outbreaks.
What will play a key role in ensuring the revival of travel becomes a reality is how as an industry we are able to create a sustainable future for travel, assimilating the current trends and what we anticipate from here. This change in the way we enable travel has been crucial in confidence building for the sector globally. It will be interesting to see how the industry prepares itself to address this pent-up demand and add new dimensions of health considerations as a part of the travel journey. Concerted efforts by all stakeholders in overcoming the current challenges will bring a steady recovery to the travel sector worldwide.
What about Outbound travellers, lots of countries may choose to passengers and flights to and from India?
Vinay: For the overall industry, lockdowns and travel restrictions are temporary moves to make the future of travel safer. Borders will gradually reopen, keeping in consideration the vaccination rate, active COVID cases and acceptance of local travel rules and regulations. We can only hope that the ongoing vaccination drives and a decline in new cases will bring some semblance of normalcy, or ‘new normalcy’, should I say, to the current situation.
With the suspension of international travel, India has seen a rise in domestic travel. Do you think this will continue or is it just a trend for the lack of options?
Vinay: While the pandemic definitely stalled global travel, it clearly could not contain the desire to travel in the Indian market. The momentary surge in demand for domestic travel came as a relief for domestic airlines and hospitality players who were severely impacted by local lockdowns. However, this trend in rising domestic travel was also impacted by the second wave kicking in this year, and successive lockdowns imposed by various states in India.
It may be premature to make any projections on the timeline for global outbound travel rebound from India given the prevailing uncertainty. But even during these testing times, we observed growing trends that could have a lasting effect on the global travel industry. Not only did domestic destinations, and select international ones like Maldives see an influx, they dealt with a new type of traveller – one that is more discerning, tech savvy, health and safety conscious, preferred longer stays, and expected extra levels of personalisation and convenience.
Sustainable tourism is another outcome of the pandemic. With people increasingly looking for less crowded destinations, the authorities are now keen to promote lesser-known travel spots to disperse the tourism footprint from oversaturated ones. Countries and global travel enablers have taken this pause to become future-ready and create a new, sustainable traveller journey that has health and safety at the heart of everything.
I am confident that once borders reopen, the industry will be better placed to bounce back, reinstating the promise in travel.
The pandemic has affected how people regard the environment, do you think people will look for alternate experiences which are eco-friendly and sustainable?
Vinay: Sustainability in the context of travel is no longer associated with just the environment. It now has a much broader connotation and takes into consideration the social, cultural, economic, and physical aspects of a destination. The time people have spent away from travel, and its subsequent effects on the environment, has resulted both avid and aspirational travellers rethinking the kind of traveller they want to be. Choosing low emission or carbon offset modes of transportation, staying, shopping, and eating at locally owned businesses, opting for second-city travel, and avoiding the use of plastic as much as possible are all small but critical choices that travellers are becoming increasingly aware of.
One key aspect of this trend is the uptake in ‘second-city travel’ which has been a buzzword for some time now, but did not gain as much relevance as today. Initially conceptualised as a way to avoid over-tourism and resource depletion at popular destinations, second cities – i.e. lesser-known yet scenic destinations across the globe or less visited regions in well-known countries – will now gain prominence for the solitude they offer. In the same vein, solo or isolated holidays will also feature high on travel wish lists. Places that take one away from crowds like private villas, remote cabins, camping, etc, will be greatly favoured, thus making health and safety, along with sustainability key filters in planning future vacations.
What are some of the sustainable/digital initiatives within VFS Global which could help future travellers?
Vinay: As the market leader in the visa application services sector, VFS Global has been at the forefront of enabling processes with an environmentally conscious mindset. As we continue to cater to evolving consumer and market trends, sustainability has been a key aspect that drives the way VFS Global conducts its business.
We are already focused on reimagining the customer journey by bringing more of the visa application process online and to the safety of our customers’ homes. Right from introducing Digital Application Centres that takes the entire application journey online, to Visa At Your Doorstep that enables multiple people to enroll their biometrics at their preferred location, and self-upload options, we have consistently worked towards reducing carbon footprint through the introduction a slew of innovative digital services.
Pre-pandemic we also witnessed great success with the launch of eVOA (electronic visa on arrival) in countries like Thailand, Vietnam, Suriname, among others where no biometric enrolment is required. eVisas as a solution simplified and streamlined the visa lifecycle by moving the entire application and issuance process online, making those destinations ideal for travellers looking to escape the traditional visa documentation process or a more seamless planning journey, while being environmentally conscious. We see adoption for eVisa in the current scenario when people are wary of being in crowded public spaces and prefer minimal physical touchpoints.
With responsible tourism gaining attention worldwide, efforts like these will be considered key drivers in enabling a truly sustainable journey for a traveller right from the first step.
Travel, tourism and hospitality are some of the hardest hit sectors by the pandemic and the Indian government hasn’t offered any relief or incentives, do you think there should have been some sort of relief package considering it is one of the largest employers in the country?
Vinay: The tourism industry that employes millions of people continues to remain affected with outbound and inbound travel facing a bigger threat since the onset of the second wave of Covid-19. Over the last year, we’ve seen various initiatives taken by state governments to push forth the cause of the local tourism economy. While the challenges continue, both the industry and the government are committed to a smooth revival.
Information about visa operations is viable on VFS Global’s website www.vfsglobal.com As this information is fluid and being updated regularly, please visit the country-specific guidelines. Real time updates are also posted on the social media channels and the Covid-19 Customer Advisories page. Air travel on all routes is subject to government advisories and permissions for air travel may be independent of the visa process.