Scant slots, lengthy waits: Where have all the Schengen visas gone?

If you're lucky enough to get a slot, then there is the next hurdle: processing time which can go as high as 7-20 working days. (Image: Pixabay)
If you're lucky enough to get a slot, then there is the next hurdle: processing time which can go as high as 7-20 working days. (Image: Pixabay)

Summary

Schengen visa appointments for European travel in 2024 are scarce and subject to long wait times, with some countries offering very limited slots

For Aditya Mishra, preparations for his Barcelona trip to join his wife in June began months ago. The 37-year-old corporate employee, who just returned from his work trip to Budapest in Hungary, however, found himself embroiled in a frustrating saga of visa acquisition.

Every day, Mishra would diligently log into BLS International's portal, the official website for Spain's Schengen visas. Despite his consistent efforts, securing an appointment for a summer travel visa, remained an uphill battle.

Weeks passed, then months, but there was no appointment in sight. He eventually opted for an unconventional solution after exhausting all his avenues, including trying to use other visa handlers who could secure slots through other means.

He had to reluctantly shell out a hefty fee of 30,000 for a "visa-at-your-doorstep" appointment, which costs three times more than the actual visa processing fee and commissions.

Mishra's story isn't one from the visa landscape of the pandemic but for 2024 upcoming summer travel, where bureaucratic hurdles still exist despite a change in regime and lack of interest in embassies to reduce the wait time for tourists.

Navigating through the complexities of international borders and regulations has never been easy. But visas to Europe have remained as elusive to obtain as last year and the year before. On average, the next available appointment date for a Schengen visa is 30-45 days, a top online travel agency's senior executive confirmed to Mint.

The Schengen area refers to a group of European countries that have abolished passport and other types of border controls at their mutual borders to allow free movement of people.

The area currently comprises 26 European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Spain, Sweden, Scandinavia and Switzerland.

The change in the visa regime for Schengen was earlier termed a game changer for frequent travellers. The criteria are that if you had two Schengen visas issued to you in the last three years, you could be eligible to apply for a multiple-entry visa. But how many really qualify? A good part of the last three years had seen two waves of the pandemic and throttling of flights.

Germany’s envoy Georg Enzweiler, who is the deputy head of mission here, told Mint last week that the country is doing its best to make travel to their country as easy as possible.

"Yes, there is the Schengen visa regime and we have to handle it but the number of issued visas have gone up and visa wait times have gone down to just a few days in the last one year," Enzweiler had said at the sidelines of a tourism event held by the German National Tourist Organisation last week.

Enzweiler said, visa numbers from India to Germany had increased for both Schengen and the 'National Visa' it issued, going up to about 1.7 lakh in 2023-24, with a 41% increase compared to the previous year.

But that may be very far from reality. A visa wait time document accessed by Mint from a travel operator paints a completely different picture. Italy has almost completely stopped offering any slots on the VFS platform for its short-term tourist visa category from cities like Delhi.

For Mumbai, Kolkata and Bengaluru, the wait to get an appointment is very long, anywhere between one and three months.

Iceland, Portugal, Spain, and Hungary practically have no slots available in most places either. Wait times including processing the visa can range anywhere between 15-75 days, as was the case with Mishra.

However, there are some notable exceptions like Scandinavia as well as for the Czech Republic. For these countries, there are appointments available within the next few weeks. Countries like Spain and Hungary only release appointments once a month, said the earlier cited OTA player.

If you're lucky enough to get a slot, then there is the next hurdle: processing time which can go as high as 7-20 working days.

As an alternative, many travel companies are promoting other unconventional destinations, including South Korea, South Africa, Japan, Brazil, Egypt and Turkey. In most cases, their wait time is as low as zero to three days. Unexpected gainers are also countries like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Georgia which have easy visas.

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Enzweiler, on the other hand, said he is on a mission to reduce wait times, with more staff being hired by his embassy to deal with the added volumes.

“I am not going to blame people for choosing alternate locations when there are countries with visa delays. But there has been a change in recent regulations which means Indians qualify more quickly for long term visas," Enzweiler said.

“It is also in the embassy's interest to issue longer term visas because even on the bureaucratic side, it means we don't have to cope with that many people filing applications again and again. We have also now employed more personnel to be able to deal with rising demand and are quite optimistic that we would be able to convince more Indians to travel to us."

While visa wait times are down it is only more recently, with holiday season beginning, that the wait times are experiencing some delays, he said. But even then the embassy is working to process applications in one-two weeks, he added. For Germany now, visa rejection rates are about 10%.

Indian travellers' late-booking attitude could be compounding the issue. Rajeev Kale, president and country head for holidays, MICE and visa at Thomas Cook (India) said, “We are traditionally a late-booking market and book very close to our holiday plans. To encourage early consideration, the company had launched its 2024 tours well in advance in October last year with early booking offers."

"However, as we head into peak season, the visa process, though an improvement over last year, is still seeing signs of constraints given the dual challenges of appointment slots and processing time," he said.

Spate of cancellations

Bharatt Kumaar Malik, senior business head for Yatra Online for the consumer travel vertical said the company was seeing a spike in the demand for travel to Schengen destinations for about a month now.

Generally, travel portals pre-book seats with the airlines and hotel rooms to be able to capture deals and demand in advance for the customer.

However, this year is going to be difficult because there will be a lot of pre-purchased inventory and fewer people will be able to travel there.

"We are unable to put any number on it yet but yes we are anticipating a decline in travel to Europe and have already seen some groups cancel their plans to Italy and more such cancellations will happen in June and July," he said. Instead, travellers have to choose locations like Bhutan, Almaty, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

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N. Chirag Travels's MD Riaz Munshi, who is also the president of the Outbound Tour Operators Association of India, said the UK, Scandinavian countries and Switzerland are still a little easier to get an appointment for.

However, this season could be a little bit of a washout for European travel even though there is persistent demand.

"It looks like a lot of outbound travel operators may lose this season of business too. Communication should be a little better because it's not as if the travel operators there don't want the business, but the diplomatic missions need to spend more time on the visa processes too," he said.

Greece has a high refusal rate because only recently the entire consulate had a change of guard in India.

“You may get a visa, but it won't be in a hurry. Even for countries like Croatia, there's a wait time of several weeks for passports that are well stamped for those who already have been issued Schengen visas in the past, but for first-time Schengen country travellers, a visa hope may be a total write off. Despite confirmed tickets and blocked hotels, people are just being rejected."

"The value-driven traveller is probably going to move away quite quickly because they can't be losing money on confirmed flight tickets and hotels in case the visa doesn't come," said a top level executive at a large travel firm.

"Also, because there are very few slots available on the embassies' front, visa service providers are using this time to profiteer and offer these slots in a way to only those that can afford their at-your-door mobile biometrics which were conceived during the pandemic so people could fill their visa applications in isolation. Their job was never to become a type of legitimate black marketing tool," the person added.

Daniel D’souza, president and country head for holidays for Thomas Cook India's SOTC Travel added that there could be an alternate solution. With shortening of booking windows rather than challenging visa processes, e-visas can become a game changer.

Several destinations like Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, and Morocco have pivoted to a digital model, and with much success.

"Issuance of long-term multi-entry visas will also serve to ease the load on consular teams while simultaneously creating opportunities for repeat visitations. Yes, the Schengen cascade regime is a valuable initiative, however we expect that this (upgrade to longer term visas) will start seeing positive impact only in the medium to long term." he said.

 

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