The evening before I was booked to fly to Delhi for the first time, I gave a talk at a school in Oxfordshire. My passport was in my jacket pocket. At least it was when I hung up the jacket in the cloakroom, but when I took it down the pocket had been picked. Besides erasing several years of travel ephemera, my carelessness jeopardised the proposed trip. I wouldn't be allowed beyond Heathrow without a passport, nor could I get into India without a visa.
By lunchtime the next day I had a freshly minted passport. In those pre-9/11 days, it was an easy matter to get a replacement travel document on the spot from the Passport Office in Petty France, central London. Now for the tricky part. The Indian High Commission had a strict mornings-only policy for applications. But with a confirmed booking on that night's British Airways flight to the Indian capital, all I could do was go along to the diplomatic mission at Aldwych in central London and hope for the best.
I explained the unhappy scenario as best I could through the intercom at the front door. An official appeared, asked for the new passport and said: "Come back in half an hour."
When I returned, he handed over the document complete with a fresh Indian visa. No charge. Within 24 hours I was caught up in the beautiful, bewildering capital, and feeling seduced by India in all her dazzling sensuality.
That act of bureaucratic kindness could not happen today. Since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, in which 164 people died, the security authorities have taken a much closer interest in people seeking to visit India. And visa processing has been outsourced.
As you know, many Western organisations outsource work to India, where it is carried out efficiently and cheaply. Perversely, the Indian government outsources in the opposite direction: asking Kuoni, a company headquartered in one of the most expensive countries on earth, Switzerland, to process its visas. Perhaps that is one reason why, two years ago, the cost of an Indian tourist visa more than doubled to £90.
While India's tourism ministry pumps a fortune into advertising in Britain and elsewhere, prospective visitors are being deterred by the ever-tougher visa regime. To assess the resilience needed to procure an Indian tourist visa, this week I went through the complex task of applying for one. The procedure gets even more onerous from Monday, with a mandatory personal interview, and fingerprinting, at one of 14 visa centres.
Some countries like you to apply online for a visa. Others prefer you to complete the traditional paper form. India insists that you do both, starting online. To save you the frustratingly opaque task of tracking down the application page on the government's website, I have made a web link to take you straight there: bit.ly/IndVis.
First, you must work out your "jurisdiction" (which depends on where you live) and select the right "Mission" from a choice of London, Birmingham or Edinburgh.
Should you have the good fortune to live in Scotland, your Mission is Edinburgh, and you can attend the visa office in the Scottish capital or Glasgow. If though, you reside in the Isle (sic) of Scilly, your jurisdiction is Birmingham. The same applies if you live in a dozen other locations, including "Cumbria and Derbyshire" – not a pair of counties that are traditionally linked. Anywhere else, including Wales and Northern Ireland? Your Mission is London. Already you feel the need for an extra drop-down option of "Mission: Impossible".
Persevere and you are confronted by a series of questions to which it is difficult to tell the whole truth. The form demands to know all the countries you have visited in the past decade – but allows you even fewer characters than Twitter to list them: just 100. You can use them all up just with visits to four Caribbean islands.
The final task is a photograph – or rather three. You must upload a picture of your non-smiling face on a white background, but the form also insists that you supply a real photo measuring a very non-standard 2x2 inches.
The last days of the Taj? It could be for some British travellers deterred by India's hard line. Rival countries can barely believe their luck. Peter La Broy, from Cornwall, says: "My wife and I have been taking a couple of late-winter sunshine weeks in Goa for the past 20 years. We both fell in love with the slightly bonkers Indian way of life, loving the heat, colour, smells and a way of life very different to ours. But now that the cost of a visa has gone up to nearly £100 each, and we have to attend a visa centre in person, we are seeking somewhere new."
Peter asks for a recommendation for a relatively cheap sunshine break that can deliver a "not-in-Europe" experience. Sri Lanka and Thailand are both ideal alternatives. The tie-breaks: Bangkok has much cheaper access (an astonishing £360 return on Transaero from Heathrow via Moscow) than Colombo does, and Thailand offers the courtesy of a visa-free stay for a month, while Sri Lanka demands £20 for an online visa. So, make it a Thai break.
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