In 2016, global travel and tourism contributed US$7.6 trillion to world GDP and supported 292 million jobs worldwide (WTTC, 2017). Undeniably, the sector benefits the economy. It generates employment opportunities and export revenues, creates sectoral linkages, and stimulates infrastructure development. However, to fully reap the benefits from international tourism, countries have to make it easier for travellers to visit. Travellers perceive visa formalities as a travel cost – direct in terms of monetary, and indirect in terms of time spent in waiting in lines, complexity of the process – which exceeding a threshold, can put them off a particular destination or lead them to choosing alternative destinations with less hassle (UNWTO, 2016).
Countries are, therefore, increasingly focussing on visa policies and procedures which in recent years have resulted in some notable progress. In 2015, 61 per cent of the world’s population required a traditional visa from the embassy prior to departure, down from 77 per cent in 2008 (UNWTO, 2016). Moreover, between 2010 and 2015, a total of 54 destinations significantly facilitated the visa process for citizens of 30 or more countries by changing their visa policies from “traditional visa” to either “eVisa”, “visa on arrival” or “no visa required” (UNWTO, 2016). Ranked at 50, India was identified as one of the 54 destinations that has carried out substantial visa policy reforms.
India’s eVisa programme
On 1st January 2010, India introduced a visa on arrival programme. This was replaced by an eVisa programme on 27th November 2014. On 1st March 2016, the visa on arrival programme was re-introduced for nationals from Japan only.
India’s eVisa programme allows foreign travellers to apply for their Indian visa online. Once the application is approved, travellers receive an Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) by an email. The ETA permits their travel to India which has to be within the period mentioned on the ETA. On arrival at the port of entry where the eVisa facility is available, travellers have to present their printed ETA to the immigration authorities who would then stamp the travellers passport thereby permitting entry into the country. Travellers can then travel within India up until the expiry date of the stamped visa in their passport.
Since inception, the program has been reviewed and modified frequently. It is now available to citizens of over 150 countries. The fees are based on principle of reciprocity and categorised into four slaps: 0, 25, 48, and 60 US dollars. There is a bank charge of 2.5%. eVisa’s are categorised into three groups: e-tourist, e-business and e-medical. Double entry is permitted on an e-tourist and e-business visa and triple entry is permitted on an e-medical visa. All three are issued for a period of 60 days, and can be availed up to two times in a calendar year.
Despite these efforts, the data shows a lukewarm response. In year 1 (December 2014 – November 2015), only 5% of international travellers availed their Indian visa online. This fraction grew to 12% in year 2 (December 2015 – November 2016) and just 16% by year 3 (December 2016 – November 2017).
Limitations of the eVisa programme
What explains the low uptake of India’s eVisa programme?
A closer examination reveals that the implementation of the programme has been poor.
eVisa’s are available under three sub-categories: e-tourist, e-business and e-medical visas. The eVisa online application form lists all the activities which travellers can carry out under each of the three eVisa categories. In addition to choosing a primary purpose of visit, the online application form seems to suggest that travellers are permitted to undertake multiple activities within a group. Upon selecting the visa type on the application form, a pop-up window states “all the following activities are permitted, however select the primarily purpose from the following“. This means that a traveller on an e-business visa whose selected primary objective is to, for example, recruit manpower, can undertake any other activity permitted on an e-business visa.
However, instruction number one on “Instructions for Applicant” on the official website states: “e-visa has 3 sub-categories, i.e. e-Tourist visa, e-Business visa and e-Medical visa. A foreigner will be permitted to club these categories (emphasis added).” The online application form therefore permits travellers to combine one activity from each of the three eVisa categories. When a combination of activities is chosen, it is not clear what category of visa will be issued.
Let’s imagine a Mr. Smith, a national from one of the eVisa programme eligible countries. While filling his eVisa application form, Mr. Smith opts to primarily participate in a short-term yoga programme (activity listed under e-tourist visa category), attend a business meeting (activity listed under e-business visa category), and go through a short-term medical treatment (activity listed under e-medical visa category). India is liberal: Mr. Smith is not restricted to his chosen primary activity. Nonetheless, the question that arises is: since he has opted for one activity listed under each of the three visa categories, will he travel to India on an e-tourist visa and/or an e-medical visa and/or an e-business visa? Surely, the Indian government does not intend to issue multiple visas to Mr. Smith all in one go.
This is further complicated by the number of entries permitted: double entry on e-tourist and e-business visa, but triple-entry on an e-medical visa. For activities across multiple categories, it is not clear how many entries are permitted. Therefore, will Mr. Smith be given a double or triple entry permit?
An array of questions pertaining to re-entry requirements have also not been answered. For example, would travellers require a re-entry permit if they wish to leave and re-enter India within the 60-day eVisa validity period? If a re-entry permit is required, are there any requirements for issuing this permit, such as a last destination restriction? Do travellers have to re-enter only from the ports of entry at which the eVisa programme is available? Travellers have posed their queries with regards to alternative port for re-entry when travelling on eVisa’s especially when the re-entery is from India’s neighbouring country via land (see here and here).
The programme also has administrative glitches. For example, travellers have repeatedly blogged on the difficulties they experience while using the eVisa application form (see here, here and here). The difficulties of the payment gateway, and limited helpful response from the help desk have been highlighted. Despite the programme being in its third year, these difficulties continue to linger making it an unpleasant experience for travellers.
How can we do better?
Let’s run through one problem at a time.
The first area is the permission to come into India under multiple categories. There are two ways to solve this problem.
- The first solution: change the rules and not permit clubbing activities across the three categories.
This means that Mr. Smith can primarily choose to either participate in a yoga programme OR attend a business meeting OR a short-term medical treatment of self. For his chosen primary activity, the government would accordingly issue him the visa.
This is easy to implement. The sentence “A foreigner will be permitted to club these categories.” from instruction number one on “Instructions for Applicant” on the official website would need to be deleted. As a result, instruction number one would then read as following “e-visa has 3 sub-categories, i.e. e-Tourist visa, e-Business visa and e-Medical visa. An e-tourist visa, an e-business visa and e-medical would be issued for any activity chosen under the respective visa category.” Consequently, the online eVisa application form would also need to incorporate this change, and restrict travellers to choose activities across categories.
While this is not a great option – we are restricting what visitors can do while travelling, it removes the confusion that has come with clubbing categories.
- The second and better solution: travellers be permitted to club activities across the three eVisa categories.
This solution is already in place. However, to avoid the current confusion associated with this solution given the existing premise of the programme, there are two alternatives:
- Permit three entries under each of the three categories. Once this is done, it is even simpler to abolish the three categories, and just allow anyone to visit India with three entries in 60 days.
- Permit three entries under each of the three categories. On the eVisa online application form, change e-tourist visa/e-business visa/e-medical visa to tourism purpose/business purpose/medicinal purpose. Accordingly, ETA would reflect the ‘purpose of visit’ along with the details of the purpose, and the number of entries would be changed to “triple” (see Figure 1 – changes in red). The eVisa stamp in the passport would only state that it is an eVisa, and ‘number of entries permitted’ would reflect ‘triple’ (see Figure 1 – changes in red).
Abolishing the three categories altogether is lucrative. However, having three categories is useful as it facilitates tracking the number of applications within each category which in turn can be used to for drawing sectoral development strategies.
Figure 1: Proposed changes to ETA and eVisa stamp in passport marked in red. Photo courtesy: Traveller’s Website
The second area for simplification is the problem of re-entry. This can be solved if the government says:
- Irrespective of travellers chosen activity across tourist, business and medical categories, the following is applicable:
- Travellers can re-enter India without a re-entry permit within the 60-day eVisa validity period.
- There are no last destination restrictions imposed on travellers when re-entering India on an eVisa.
- Travellers on an eVisa can re-enter India through any port of entry, be it land, air or sea ports
A third improvement lies in greater flexibility for renewing an eVisa in India, capping the number of days a traveller can stay in India on an eVisa. This has been done by many countries e.g. Kenya where travellers can renew their eVisa for a further 90 days at the immigration headquarters in Nairobi, capping the maximum number of days on an eVisa at 6 months.
A fourth area for progress is on information access. The ‘Frequently Asked Questions Relating to Tourist Visa‘ on the website of the Bureau of Immigration, Ministry of Home Affairs, needs an additional FAQ item stating:
- Travellers who wish to travel to India for a short period, can also avail their India visa through the eVisa programme. Please check the website of the programme (https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/evisa/tvoa.html) for eligibility and requirements.
- Travellers on an eVisa can carry out activities that spread tourism, medical and business categories. For a list of activities please visit the eVisa online application form.
These four initiatives would solve the flaws of the Indian eVisa program in the following ways. First, it would help in avoiding confusion at the border especially when travellers want to enter and exit India, a country incorporated in intraregional travel plans. Second, it would also help in avoiding policy glitches with respect to the number of entries permitted, and the type of visa issued when activities are chosen across tourism, business and medical categories. Third, it would enable travellers to undertake multiple activities without being held up for violating visa norms. Fourth, it would help rationalise benefits from availing eVisa’s over the traditional embassy route visa especially for travellers from countries to whom the government, with effect from 1st April 2017, provides multiple entry tourist and business visa. This benefit becomes even more apparent when travellers incorporate India in their regional travel plans as travellers have blogged of their preference to avail a traditional visa rather than have to worry about the nitty-gritty missed details of the eVisa programme (see here). Fifth, it would help resolve the consequent administrative glitches especially those that are seen on the ETA and the eVisa stamp in the passport.
To encourage and reap socio-economic benefits from cross border movements of persons, addressing visa procedural bottlenecks can be as, rather even more, important than liberalising visa policies. As a matter of fact, UNTWO reports that communication around visa policies provided by destinations are among the simplest but least addressed areas of opportunity (UNWTO, 2016). While India’s efforts to liberalize the eVisa programme are to be lauded, it needs to ensure that the programme is free from procedural bottlenecks. Afterall, “easy and hassle-free availability of visas is one of the basic ingredients for attracting foreign tourists” (WTTC, 2012).
UNWTO, 2016 Visa Openness Report 2015.
Natasha Agarwal, the author, is an independent research economist affiliated with Research and Outcome Consortium (R&O).