Many times when you look at beautiful pictures of tourist attractions on the internet, your heart tells you to go book a ticket and start packing your bags. Then you start looking into the visa application process and you think maybe it’s time to look for another destination.
Long immigration queues greet passengers at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, even though a sticker in the terminal promises 24-minute processing.
A lot of research has suggested that the visa process acts as a major barrier to tourists from some countries wishing to visit another country for business or leisure purposes. The travel industry maintains that improving visa policies and streamlining the visa process can have a direct positive impact on visitor numbers, GDP growth and job creation.
Over the past two years, there have been some significant improvements in this area, not least the formal recognition of its importance by the G20 countries, which have agreed to collaborate and seek to ease visa burdens.
“This is a big challenge, particularly with business travellers, who tend to arrive on very short notice. And when the visa process gets in the way, business can suffer as well as the opportunity to grow,” said Douglas Anderson, CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, a global travel management company, at the recent World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) Asia Summit in Seoul.
“Expediting the process and taking these people out of long lines will help economic growth.”
He said a programme that allows expedited clearance of frequent or low-risk travellers at a point of entry would be a very good solution. As well, he believes, it is paramount to create more transparency and efficiency in issuing visas.
“Using technology can make all this possible. For each and every booking that we and our competitors make, there are screens and filters. We make it run in a way that the [interests of] government and authorities are aligned. Finding the common objectives is the priority that we want to emphasise,” said Mr Anderson.
Thea Chiesa, head of the Aviation, Travel and Tourism Industries unit of the World Economic Forum (WEF), agreed that all concerned should be looking at how to use technology to make the travel process more accessible, convenient and efficient without a diminution of national security.
“It is all about public and private partnership,” she said. “Collaborating, bringing the national security team to the table, making them part of the solution, while at the same time looking at the bigger perspective.
“There is the possibility of moving the dialogue from ‘we just need to remove visas’ to ‘let’s create the solution that is workable to the advantage of both the industry and the government’.”
Educating governments and making them realise the benefits that travel and tourism can deliver to a country are also part of the solution, summit participants agreed.
Martin Craigs, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (Pata), said that if technologies were being used to the maximum effect, people could get across borders quickly and reasonably. This should not be seen as the threat to national security but a way to enhance it.
“We are not trying to compromise security. If we all can use technology efficiently, it can help us find the bad guys quicker. By speaking with one voice, stating our common goal, we need to continue educating governments with great patience,” he said.
If people in the travel and tourism industry want to see progress on this issue, they need to know how and when to communicate and negotiate with their own bureaucrats, said Ambassador Young-Shim Dho, chairperson of the UNWTO ST-EP Foundation.
“When big events such as the Olympics, World Cup or Asian Games come to a certain country, I’d like to see people in the industry to be more active because that is the momentum we cannot lose, the opportunity we have to take,” she advised. “We have to use it to convince the bureaucrats to open more visa and tax exemptions.”
She said that lowering visa fees is an obvious first step to help bring more tourists to a country. And with more people coming in, the growth is no longer limited to the sector itself but will be directly and indirectly transferred to the local community. This is part of a bigger process that helps local citizens to learn and develop a globalised perspective.
Christopher Rodrigues, chairman of VisitBritain, the national tourism agency, also commented that the sooner the industry figures out how to remove barriers, the more opportunities there will be for everyone to grow and prosper in the future.
“The tourism industry is largely dependent on external factors and when the situation is not doing well, participants in this sector can lose money very fast,” he said.
“We need to make sure that when confronted by great projections of fantastic growth, we remove as many barriers as possible. We need to be as efficient as we can, while trying to minimise the number of self-inflicted wounds.”