India, I hear, is a beautiful and amazing country that offers much to see, and actively markets itself as a tourist destination. The recent ‘Incredible India’ campaign was awesome.
As publisher of Gulf Insider I was invited by a hotel group to visit India to promote both India and a hotel there to an international audience.
I’ve never visited the country before and looked forward to sharing my experience with thousands of others in the print edition of the magazine and amongst 325,000 online followers throughout the Middle East and beyond.
A Bahrain travel agent organized our flights, but told us that we had to arrange our own visas. So, we went online and filled out an overly long and sometimes bizarre questionnaire requiring us to name, among other things, every country we had visited over the last ten years – TEN YEARS? I’d struggle to list all the countries I’ve visited in the past 10 months!
Whoever thought up the visa application questions also needed to know all sorts of other pieces of seemingly meaningless info. Anyway, we answered the online application as best we could, laughing at the pointless questions instead of being angered by them, and received a print out which looked official and included our portrait photos. We thought these were our visas.
We realized two days before our departure date that there was a charge of BD 60 for each visa, which we had not paid. We reviewed what we thought were our visas but were in fact not visas!
We called the travel agent who booked our flights and asked for advice, which was to go to another travel agent in Manama that handled Indian visas – in person. Why must we go to another agent? Why can’t it be done online? ‘That’s just how it works’, was the reply.
I jumped into my car and drove to the travel agent mentioned, located close to Bab al Bahrain. As I entered my heart sank. There were about sixty people standing and sitting around waiting. The atmosphere was one of tedious resignation. Babies were crying, which always makes a place feel stressful.
Luckily, things were better than first seemed. I still don’t know why so any people were waiting, but I was served almost immediately. I handed over my passport and completed form only to be asked for a letter of invitation from the hotel. I didn’t have one, nor had I been told I would need to bring one. I had called and asked what I would need to bring beforehand and there was no mention of needing any letter of invitation.
I scrolled through the emails on my I-phone to show some correspondence with the hotel chain. The chap behind the counter then walked to another counter to make a call. I meekly followed in case I was needed to answer any more questions. He made a call and walked back to the original counter, which now had half a dozen people standing around where I had been standing just a few minutes earlier. I eased back into my original position in front of the other people. After another call I was invited into a side office where I met another gentleman. He inspected my documentation and told me I’d need to go visit the Indian Embassy visa section, get approval, and then once I received this approval I would need to return to his office.
Seriously? It seemed like I was going to need to spend half a day driving around Manama getting various permissions just so I could go on a four day visit. ‘Surely there’s a better way’, I asked.
The problem, I was told, was the visit visa I had applied for was as a journalist. Yes, to write a travel article promoting Indian tourism. I offered to reapply in any manner he suggested. ‘Sorry, but that would not be legal’, was the reply.
I thanked him for his time, in fairness he was doing his best, and walked out of the office feeling despondent. Then I had an idea…
I called an Indian friend, someone respected amongst the Indian community in Bahrain. I’d met with him just a few days previously and told him of my upcoming first trip to his country. He’d been delighted and next day sent me photos of the place I was planning to visit, which looked beautiful.
He very kindly offered to take me to the Indian Embassy himself, but that didn’t seem right. I know he’s a busy man and didn’t want to take up his time. Instead I asked him to give me the number of someone in the embassy I could call and seek advice from. Based on that advice I would either go through the recommend process, or give up on the trip.
Within seconds he texted me a name and mobile number of someone in a responsible position at the embassy. I immediately called them, but there was no answer. I messaged them saying who I was, who recommended I call them, and asking they call me back when convenient. I received no call back despite two WhatsApp blue ticks confirming my message had been read. Next morning I called again, but still no response.
The flight was for that evening. I looked at my flight ticket and itinerary, and realized we would not be going.
No doubt there were better ways I could have handled this, I’m certain there are, but I’m also certain there are better ways to organize a visa system, especially for a country as big and important as India. I have applied for many visas and until this time it had always been a simple process.
It’s my honest belief, based on my recent experience, that Indian government bureaucracy is acting as a brake on India’s tourist industry.
- Gulf Insider contacted the Indian Embassy for comment before publishing this article, but received no reply.