In a guest editorial from Chris Dix, chief operating officer, Europe and the Americas at VFS Global, Breaking Travel News here examines how efficient visa processes are the hidden ingredient to economic growth.
From ancient history onwards, people have imposed borders – and required those who want to pass to identify themselves.
The first reference to the modern-day visa was two and a half millennia ago - when the ancient Persian King Artaxerxes granted his cup bearer Nehemiah permission to travel, in a letter to neighbouring governors requesting safe passage.
Today, while borders are well protected, governments increasingly recognise the value of easing cross-border travel and trade.
For most people, obtaining travel documents has become much easier.
The days of waiting outside an embassy for its visa section to open are long gone in many cases.
In recent years, technology and improved customer service have transformed the application process.
As international travel has boomed, so has visa issuance.
Two thirds of the world’s population require a visa before travel, including 75 per cent of those travelling to Europe.
In the US in 2013, there were 173 million non-immigrant temporary admissions, primarily tourists, business visitors and students.
And over the four years between 2009 and 2012, visa applications from China to the Schengen region increased by over 100 per cent.
Efficient visa arrangements aren’t just a matter of personal convenience.
They can be as important a factor for a country seeking to promote trade and economic growth as an impressive new airport or a tourist marketing campaign.
Take for example, Chinese visitors to Europe.
Two thirds of them visit France, part of the Schengen zone, while only 18 per cent made it to the UK, which had in place its own separate visa process.
British prime minister David Cameron recognised this, and has announced a relaxation of visa arrangements to come into effect from this year.
The United Nations World Tourism Organisation and the World Travel & Tourism Council estimated in 2012 that improving visa processes could generate $35 – $206 billion in tourism receipts within three years in the G20 economies.
They estimate that the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) region would gain up to US$12 billion in international tourism receipts by 2016 as a result of improvements to visa processes.
They have also identified the longer-term benefits of more efficient visa arrangements, including potentially creating up to 367,000 jobs in the travel and tourism industry in Pacific Rim countries.
Restrictive or bureaucratic visa arrangements are one of the major barriers facing less well-developed countries, and have been identified as one of the most significant barriers to talent and goods moving across borders – hindering economic growth.
The ease with which travellers can secure a visa has been shown to have a significant impact on destination choice for both business and holiday travel.
Research for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development identified that even low-tech solutions, such as simplifying the application form and reducing the number of documents required can have a significant effect.
If the visa application process is not to be a barrier to travel, it needs to suit different customer needs - from the person who prefers to seek advice directly from someone at a visa application centre to the time-poor multi-tasker who wants to apply via their smartphone in a few snatched moments.
Ultra-personalised services, via mobile or online platforms, have become more a necessity than a luxury today, in everything from the travel sector to government services.
For instance, business travellers now want bespoke services that allow them to avoid paperwork, manage deadlines on their behalf, courier their travel documents to them at short notice, or even directly to meet them at the airport.
Some want information stored so they don’t have to enter every detail again the next time they apply.
Others want real time progress updates to check where their visa has got to in the system.
Some even require visa service providers to travel to their homes and offices to collect application papers and biometric information.
Making travel as frictionless as possible is a good investment for governments not just to promote economic growth, but also to enhance a country’s reputation.
User-friendly visa arrangements can help a country be seen as efficient, modern and helpful. Perceptions of the national brand start long before a traveller sets foot in the arrivals lounge of a new country.
They are formed right from when they begin the process of filling out their visa application form.