I’ve just stumbled upon a small but significant and, I would add, critical discovery. What the government proudly boasts of as visas on arrival is actually nothing of the sort.
Even worse, we used to have visa on arrival for 12 countries but that’s no longer the case. What’s taken its place is an email visa, which has to be applied for a minimum four days before you reach India. Yet the government still calls it visa on arrival and that’s not just untrue it can also be horribly misleading.
I made this discovery last month when my friend Gauri Keeling’s daughter-in-law, Motomi Miyakawa, a Japanese citizen, was deported from Delhi airport because she was misled by the terminology visa on arrival.
Actually, in Motomi’s case it wasn’t just the nomenclature that misled her. When she last visited India in November 2011 we had a genuine visa on arrival policy for Japanese citizens. At that time there was no need to apply in advance.
This changed in November 2014, when the NDA government expanded the number of countries that could benefit from this facility from 12 to 44. Thereafter travellers from these 44 have to apply by email at least four days in advance. No longer can they simply arrive and get a visa at the airport.
The problem is that by continuing to call the scheme visa on arrival we are misleading travellers and, more importantly, misleading ourselves.
The term visa on arrival is an internationally recognised nomenclature. It means you can get a visa on arrival without having to apply in advance. In fact, that is what the nomenclature meant in India right up till November 2014.
Now that an advance application is necessary and you will be deported if you don’t make one, it’s unacceptable, if not actually unforgivable, to still use the term visa on arrival.
However, Motomi’s case reveals further worrying facts. She checked with All Nippon Airways, the airline she flew on, whether the visa on arrival scheme was still on offer and the airline confirmed it was. Clearly ANA was not aware that the scheme had critically changed. Like other airlines, ANA, I presume, checks whether its passengers have visas for the countries they are visiting. Otherwise they have to bear the cost of deportation.
Now when I checked with the helpline number given on the government website called Tourist Visa on Arrival, the gentleman who answered confirmed all the facts I have given above.
However, he justified making visas on arrival conditional upon an advance application with the argument this is to guard against long lines or even chaos at the airport if large numbers of tourists from these 44 countries arrive in a short space of time.
Unfortunately, that only raises two further questions.
First, an advance email application might make it procedurally easier for the authorities in India to handle the numbers coming in but it doesn’t address the fact the nomenclature is misleading.
Second, how do other countries that offer genuine visas on arrival accommodate a big influx of arrivals in a short space of time? If they can manage why can’t we?
My advice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his tourism minister is they need a new name for the scheme which is honest and enticing rather than beguiling but inaccurate.
And they should definitely find one before they expand it to 150 countries as they intend. Otherwise India will be accused of misleading rather than encouraging tourists.
The views expressed by the author are personal