Warning of the week: New travel rules for India

This week India unveiled a "tourist visa on arrival" scheme for citizens of five countries. A press release issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi announced that tourists from New Zealand, Japan, Finland, Luxembourg and Singapore can pay US$60 (£40) on arrival at the country's main airports: Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai (Madras) and Kolkata (Calcutta).

The scheme, according to Home Affairs minister Shri Mullappally Ramachandran, has "the objective of promoting tourism". Yet thousands of prospective UK visitors to India have had their plans wrecked by an arbitrary change to visa rules and delays in the system, which was recently outsourced to a company called VF Services (UK) Ltd.

The change in rules affects holders of multi-entry visas. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs has decreed that anyone who intends to enter the country twice in less than two months must seek additional permission from the High Commission of India in London or the Indian Consulates at Birmingham and Edinburgh. This will affect tourists planning to make a side trip to Nepal, as well as those who make frequent visits to India.

"There were a lot of security issues involved, and every country has the right to protect its security," said Jagdish Chander, director of the Government of India Tourist Office in London.

To get permission to visit more than once in two months, travellers must take a full itinerary with hotel and flight bookings – which itself requires a leap of faith given the uncertainty surrounding visa rules.

The government warns that the extra red tape can take three or four working days, but in straightforward cases permission is normally granted within a couple of hours, with a "Miscellaneous Charge" of £7 for the privilege. Travellers who are granted permission must register with the authorities within 14 days of arrival.

Many British travellers have already fallen foul of the change in rules. One Independent reader, Julie Calvert, was due to fly out from Heathrow to Delhi a week ago – but arrived at Virgin Atlantic's check-in desks to be told that she could not travel, as she had spent Christmas and the New Year in India:

"It was a special trip, to coincide with the Holi festival and my partner's 50th birthday, so we didn't have the flexibility to change our trip."

Ms Calvert says she is out of pocket by over £2,000: "Virgin were aware of the issue, because they were checking passports to see whether people had been to India in the past two months. They know who's bought a ticket to India. They could very easily send out an email mailshot to everyone who was potentially affected."

Virgin Atlantic says that clients who book direct were informed, but Ms Calvert bought her ticket through an agent. It warns passengers that "Virgin Atlantic is not responsible for verifying individual travellers' itineraries, and therefore passengers visiting India on a multiple entry tourist visa are expected to take personal responsibility for the above".

Travel insurance does not offer compensation for failure to comply with visa rules, even when they change without notice.

Delays in issuing other visas are causing business visitors to delay or cancel trips. "The processing time is longer than usual due to the high volume of postal applications," warns VF Services. It is recommending a minimum of 15 working days – three weeks – for postal applications. Allowing a few days for time in transit, and the odd UK/Indian public holiday, it appears that at least one month is needed to ensure a visa will arrive before departure.

The time can be reduced to two or three days by making a personal application at one of VF Services' offices, but on Wednesday this week the queue at one of the London offices – 60 Wilton Road, close to Victoria station – was already long at 8am, half-an-hour before the office opened.

A couple from Somerset, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of jeopardising future visits, left for India a week late because of delays in renewing their business visas (price £169 each). The pair are regular visitors to India, but they are considering switching some contracts to Eastern Europe rather than battle with Indian bureaucracy. "It's hard enough to do business there without this. We try to do what we can to be 'fair trade', but the Indian government seems to be doing everything to impede us."

Jagdish Chander, of the tourist office in London, said: "We are asking them to hire more staff. We are here to help get more tourists from UK to India." He was unable to speculate on when British travellers might qualify for visa-on-arrival status. "It's not in my hands."

The 2010 Commonwealth Games will be held in Delhi in October, which is likely to add pressure to the system.

Bargain of the week: Rail deals for over-55s

Were you born before 6 March 1955? If so, you qualify for some excellent deals that more and more train operators are creating for people aged 55 or over. They apply regardless of whether they have a Senior Railcard (available to travellers over 60, price £26), though sometimes if you have a card you earn an extra discount.

Arriva Trains Wales (0870 9000 773; arrivatrainswales.co.uk ) has a flat fare of £15 return for over-55s between any two stations, which extend deep into England – as far as Birmingham, Crewe, Manchester and Liverpool. A further £2 off is given to railcard holders. For comparison, the standard off-peak fare between Fishguard and Chester is £64.50.

The Arriva offer mimicks the long-running Club 55 deal from ScotRail (08457 55 00 33; scotrail.co.uk ): a flat £15 return within Scotland, plus Carlisle and Berwick.

Both deals expire later this month, but are likely to be revived after Easter.

Destination of the week: West Africa via Casablanca

If our 48 Hours in Marrakech inspires you to visit Morocco, consider going rather further. The national airline, Royal Air Maroc (020-7307 5800; royalairmaroc.com ), has an extensive network of flights to west Africa, and is now actively selling them to the UK market.

Dakar (Senegal), Bamako (Mali) and Abidjan (Ivory Coast) have traditionally been accessed via Paris, at high fares – typically £500 or £600 return. But now Royal Air Maroc is offering fares via its main hub, Casablanca, for as little as £378 return. You can buy them online thanks to a much-improved web presence.

Some connections in Casablanca are very quick (as little as 50 minutes), but others offer several hours to explore the city – a swift rail link to the centre makes this feasible.

Tip of the week: Latin American trains in the sidings

Ecuador really has only one railway line, and between this week and 4 July the main stretch of it – from Riobamba via Alausi to Sibambe – will be closed for engineering work, according to the latest Thomas Cook Overseas Timetable (£13.99). In Peru, rail services from Cusco to Machu Picchu are not expected to resume until next month. Following last Saturday's massive earthquake, many train services in Chile are being disrupted.