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Peak seasons often come with their share of challenges and opportunities. The summer of 2022 was different. For the first time, the travel industry was catering to an unfamiliar need: a world full of travellers deprived of international mobility for two long years. The situation prompted deep thinking on the fast-changing customer expectations. Have health and safety measures moved up on travellers’ priority list? Are they comfortable filling in multiple documents seeking health information? What has been the impact of the pandemic on disposable incomes? Are contactless and digital experiences the new order? These were some of the questions facing the travel trade. The immediate challenge was to ensure traveller convenience.

When borders began opening in mid-2021, the industry expected a slow but resilient recovery, perhaps underestimating the travel demand waiting to explode. By the time the peak summer season arrived in India, most countries had opened up to Indian visitors, travel restrictions had eased and most regular international flights had resumed.

Despite the covid resurgence in many parts of the world, embassies were inundated with visa applications from tourists, business travellers and students, among others. Smart planning in restarting our operations amid the pandemic ensured that VFS Global was well equipped to deal with this wave of ‘revenge travel’. Even as visa applications averaged more than 20,000 a day throughout the peak season, it did not impact our turnaround timelines of clearing applications in one business day. But the unexpected surge in demand did result in limited visa appointment availability and stretched timelines on visa decisions. It has been a learning for all stakeholders. While embassies and consulates can use the experience to enhance capacity planning, visa customers could apply early. Most countries accept visa applications up to 90 days before one’s date of travel. According to the revised Schengen Visa Code, effective 2 February 2020, you can apply for this visa up to 6 months ahead.

Given the volatile business environments we work in, I think adaptability and agility will be key differentiators. Restarting our global operations during the pandemic is a case in point. Early on, we recognised the gravity of the crisis, as well as an opportunity for transformation, and undertook a programme to transform our processes and organization to make it future-proof. By April 2020, 3,196 Visa Application Centres (or VACs) out of our global network of 3,384 VACs were closed temporarily. But in just about 7 months, we had resumed operations at 1,600 VACs, catering to over 50 client governments across 129 countries. And as of today, two-thirds of our network is up and running.

To regain pre-pandemic momentum, technology-led smart solutions would be the key to addressing changes in customer mindset. An emerging set of travellers today demand experiences with minimal or no-contact physical interactions. This switch in expectations has fuelled the emergence and acceptance of contactless and do-it-yourself technologies. Today, we have tech-enabled alternatives that have considerably reduced touchpoints and made the once lengthy paper process of visa applications remarkably seamless.

At VFS Global, we witnessed a big demand for services launch at the start of the pandemic, like digital document check, digital application services, visa at your doorstep. The last of these enables end-to-end visa application, including biometric submission, at people’s homes or offices, and has been the most popular service across markets post the pandemic.

For a business like ours that primarily provides services on behalf of governments, security, reliability and innovation are imperative to fine-tune efficiencies, tighten controls and consistently deliver unique value propositions to end-users while maintaining sharp security standards. The brighter side of the pandemic is that governments worldwide are examining technology-driven solutions for seamless global mobility while ensuring robust data security and better citizen relations. I foresee wider adoption of services such as e-visas and biometric technologies.

The growing adoption of smart governance will create fresh opportunities for outsourcing. The value of private partners with specialized domain competence is well recognized today. Twenty years ago, few believed that visa services could be outsourced. From managing one mission in 2001 to serving the governments of 65 countries, we have facilitated 245 million visa applications. The most gratifying part of this journey is that we were not just one of India’s earliest unicorns, but one of the first ‘Made in India’ companies that went global by creating a new business segment. Our footprint has grown. Currently, we manage visa outsourcing services for governments of 50 countries in India with a presence across 19 cities. In addition, our passports and consular services on behalf of the ministry of external affairs caters to over 7 million Indians across 9 countries. We also operate the Pravasi Bhartiya Sahayata Kendra, a 24/7 information dissemination and grievance redressal centre started by the MEA for expatriate workers since 2014.

Travellers’ expectations and preferences will continue to change in the post-covid new normal. Stronger diplomatic relations and proactive communication will be imperative for capacity forecasts and timely issuance of visas. This will not just restore pre-pandemic momentum in global trade and travel, but help redefine customer and citizen relations.

Zubin Karkaria is founder and chief executive officer, VFS Global 

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