“Our dream trip to India we booked in 2019 has just fallen into ruins,” is how one of thousands of British travelers summed up how a tangle of red tape ruined plans to escape to Goa in October.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the vast majority of UK visitors to India entered India using an eVisa – a relatively simple online system similar to the US Esta system.
India closed its borders as the crisis spread and the service was suspended.
Then, in February 2022, the nation opened up to tourism and the eVisa system was restored.
But while nationals of 156 countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, are now eligible to apply online, those from the UK are barred.
Citizens of all 27 members of the European Union are currently eligible for eVisa. It’s unclear why the UK, formerly one of India’s top tourism markets, should be effectively penalized.
One theory circulating in the travel industry is that at the time the scheme was withdrawn, the UK was still a de facto member of the EU. When eVisa went live again, the European Union was added back to the list – but an administrative oversight meant the UK was not added separately.
The only alternative for British travelers is to apply for a full Indian visa, which requires an interview. But the post-Covid backlog is so long that the wait is months.
British tour operators to India have been forced to cancel thousands of trips and refund money. But those who have made independent arrangements may face the loss of some or all of their fare.
A traveler who has an Irish passport told The Independent: “We were supposed to fly on October 17th, so the system was open for applications on September 17th. I filled out the entire form, uploaded the photos and clicked submit.
“Then I started my husband’s application and to my dismay the UK is not on the list of those who can apply for an e-Visa.
“I then found out that he had to do another paper application, hand it in and then set up an interview at one of the various visa centers across the UK.
“Up until November there were no dates available anywhere. I called the Indian embassy, all the visa centers, anyone I thought could help. Their response was consistent – he had to book an appointment online.
“I had to cancel our long-awaited vacation and lost 80 percent of our money.
“The website warns not to arrange a trip until you have secured your visa but this holiday was booked in 2019 and canceled three times due to Covid.
“We are heartbroken.”
The Indian decision is believed to have cost tour operators millions of pounds in refunds to customers who were unable to obtain visas on time.
Tui, Britain’s largest holiday company, has canceled planned package holidays to Goa at the start of the winter season.
A spokesman said The Independent: “We fully understand the concerns of customers regarding travel to India and recognize the current challenges related to the visa application process.
“Our teams have escalated this issue to the Indian authorities to try and resolve the issue.
“We will contact affected customers when we receive further updates.”
Although it is always the traveler’s responsibility to ensure they comply with immigration regulations, some travel companies will step in to return money even if they are not legally liable.
Saga, which caters to older travelers, has given some refunds. A spokesman said: “Like all travel providers, we are aware of the ongoing challenges related to visas to enter India. We help our customers by providing all the necessary information and support.”
Since the beginning of September The Independent has made repeated representations to the India Tourism Bureau and the High Commission in London, but has yet to receive a response.