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Indian visa nightmare wrecks holiday plans for thousands

Exclusive: Online visas for holidays in India are available for nationals of 156 eligible countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe – but not the UK

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 06 October 2022 20:34 BST
A misty sunrise at the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh
A misty sunrise at the Taj Mahal in Agra, Uttar Pradesh (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

“Our dream holiday to India, booked in 2019, has just collapsed in tatters.” That is how one of thousands of British travellers summed up how a red tape tangle has ruined plans for an October escape to Goa.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the vast majority of UK visitors to India entered India on an eVisa – a relatively simple online system similar to the US Esta scheme.

India closed its borders when the crisis spread, and the service was suspended.

Then the nation opened up to tourism in February 2022, and the eVisa system was restored.

Yet while nationals of 156 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, are now eligible to apply online, people from the UK are excluded.

CItizens of all 27 European Union members are currently entitled to eVisas. It is unclear why the United Kingdom, previously one of the key tourism markets for India, should effectively be penalised.

One theory circulating in the travel industry is that at the time the scheme was withdrawn, the UK was still a de facto member of the EU. When eVisas started up again, the European Union was restored to to the list – but an administrative oversight meant that the United Kingdom was not added separately.

A more plausible explanation is reciprocation: Indian citizens face considerable bureaucracy to secure a visa for the UK.

Unless the government in Delhi changes its stance, the only way for British travellers to visit India is to make an application for a full Indian visa, which requires an interview. But the post-Covid backlog is so long that the waiting time is running into months.

UK tour operators to India have been forced to cancel thousands of holidays, and refund money. But those who have made independent arrangements face losing some or all of their air fare.

One traveller, who has an Irish passport, told The Independent: “We were due to fly on 17 October so on 17 September the system was open for applications. I filled in all the form, uploaded the photos and pressed ‘submit’.

“Then I started my husband’s application and to my horror, UK is not on the list of those who can apply for an eVisa.

“I then found out he had to do a different paper application, submit it and then book an interview in one of the various visa centres around the UK.

“No appointments were available anywhere until November. I phoned the Indian embassy, all the visa centres, anyone who I thought could help. Their response was consistent – he had to book an appointment online.

“I have had to cancel our long awaited holiday losing 80 per cent of our money.

“The website does warn you not to arrange travel until you have secured your visa, but this holiday was booked in 2019 and cancelled three times due to Covid.

“We are heartbroken.”

The Indian decision is thought to have cost tour operators millions of pounds in refunds to customers who could not obtain visas in time.

Although the traveller is always responsible for ensuring they comply with immigration rules, some travel firms are stepping in to hand back money even when they are not legally liable.

A spokesperson for Tui, Britain’s biggest holiday company told The Independent: “We fully understand the concerns of customers due to travel to India and acknowledge the current challenges surrounding the visa application process.

“Our teams have escalated this issue to the Indian authorities to try and resolve the issue.

“We’ll contact impacted customers when we receive further updates.”

Saga, which caters for older travellers, has issued some refunds. A spokesperson said: “We, like all travel providers, are aware of the ongoing challenges around visas to enter India. We are helping our customers with the provision of all necessary information and support.”

Since the start of September, The Independent has made repeated representations to the Indian tourist office and high commission in London, but has not yet had a response.

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