Visa waiting times of over 2 years keep Indian travelers away from the US

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(CNN) — Chaitali Aggarwal has long dreamed of visiting New York from her home in the Indian capital, New Delhi. And so, in 2020, she applied for a tourist visa for herself and her father.

Two years later they are still waiting.

Of course, as with all globetrotters, Covid-19 got in the way. But while travel has mostly resumed as the pandemic retreated, Aggarwal still has a bureaucratic mountain range standing in the way of her American dream.

She’s not the only one.

Many Indians hoping to vacation or see family in the US are now facing enormous delays in obtaining the interviews necessary for visas to be granted. The problem also affects potential visitors from other countries.

That means one of the largest sources of tourism in the United States will be severely curtailed, potentially missing out on millions of dollars in revenue for the country.

“We accept any appointment, any time,” says Aggarwal. “But I don’t see it happening any time soon.”

Back in 2020, Aggarwal hired an agent to help navigate the complicated US tourist visa process. She secured appointments for Visa interviews, but they were postponed because of the pandemic. Now she had to restart the process due to changed circumstances.

And having already spent 14,000 rupees ($171) in fees and payments to the third-party agent, she must decide if she can afford to do it again.

In order to obtain a business or tourist visa, an Indian citizen must provide information regarding the purpose of their visit, proof that they can support themselves financially while in the US, work history and educational background, details of relatives residing in the US , and provide a full itinerary.

The final stage of the visa process is an in-person interview – if you can get one.

According to the US State Department, the waiting time for one of these interviews at the US Embassy in New Delhi in early December was 936 calendar days, including weekends and holidays. In Hyderabad it was 780. In Mumbai it is 999.

A State Department official told CNN Travel that initiatives are in place to expedite visa interview processes, including onboarding new employees and hiring “eligible family members of our diplomatic staff to fill consular positions overseas and in the United States.”

They acknowledged there are still difficulties, but said the department is also expanding its interview waiver process for some temporary workers, students and academic exchange visitors. They said global visa processing should reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels by 2023.

“While we have made great strides in recovering from pandemic-related closures and staffing issues, we are still working to respond to significant demand for visa services,” the representative added.

“We recognize that some applicants may still face longer wait times for visa interviews. We are committed to reducing wait times as quickly as possible and recognize the critical role international travel plays in the US economy and the importance of family reunification.”

Critics say these measures are not enough. And not only travelers like Aggarwal are feeling the effects, but also US companies.

The United States Travel Association, a tourism industry association, has commissioned a study that looks at three of the US’s largest inbound travel markets – Brazil, India and Mexico – and the financial and reputational damage caused by the loss of their tourists.

USTA President and CEO Geoff Freeman says perhaps the most significant impact of these delays is travelers falling in love with another travel destination and deciding the US isn’t worth it — ever.

“The visitor you put off today is also the visitor who decides not to come tomorrow,” he says.

This means a significant loss of sales. According to the National Travel and Tourism Office, part of the US Department of Commerce, India was the country’s 10th largest tourism market in 2019 – but the 5th largest contributor.

The USTA study estimates the US could be missing out on $1.6 billion in tourism revenue from Indian tourists choosing to go elsewhere in 2023.

The situation becomes even more precarious because many insurers do not cover trips interrupted by visa problems.

“It is unlikely that your travel insurer will cover your canceled trip if you have not received your travel visa,” said Jeff Rolander, vice president of claims at Faye Travel Insurance.

“Unfortunately, even if it is requested on time and requested late or simply not requested on time, this is considered a required document to enter your destination, so a supplier cannot protect you from cancellation costs if you do not have it with you by the designated departure date of the trip .”

USTA’s Freeman doubts things will change anytime soon, despite official promises.

“To date, we have seen no desire at the State Department to address this issue,” he said.

Aggarwal, who changed her original plans and visited Canada this summer, is trying to decide if she can afford, financially or emotionally, to reapply for her US tourist visa.

However, she hasn’t stopped fantasizing about visiting the Big Apple.

“I really want to travel. New York is at the top of my travel list. But the list is just so long.”

Photo: Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi. Image by Getty.

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