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Covid-19 has led to shutting down of international borders and foreign travel has come to a grinding halt. Barring few air-bubbles, flying for tourism purposes has still not taken off. Badly hit by the pandemic, the travel industry is waiting for the opportune time that will catalyze its revival. The pandemic has changed the international travel including visa processes forever now. There are talks of digital visas, health passports and vaccine passports, etc. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online Vinay Malhotra, Regional Group Chief Operating Officer (South Asia, Middle East & North Africa and Americas), VFS Global shares his thoughts on challenges ahead of international travel, new normal in visa processing, health concerns taking the centerstage even in the travel industry and building an ecosystem towards a safe future of travel. Excerpts:
Given the current pandemic, when do you estimate the recovery of international travel?
Considering the current prevailing uncertainty, with cases on the rise in some regions and lockdowns still being implemented in various countries, including India, it would be premature to offer any projections on when a full recovery could be made. That said, generally speaking, the travel industry tends to weather shocks well, bouncing back soon after the crisis is past, be it war, or terror attacks, or outbreaks. The desire to travel for leisure or business is an intrinsic aspect of our lives today – people are keen to travel as soon as they possibly can; pent-up demand and new dimensions of health considerations are strong driving forces for the sector to rally.
The silver linings specifically have been the progress of vaccination drives, travel bubbles for specific travel routes and categories, uptick in leisure or business travel from source markets – revival in these areas over the last few months have been important for confidence building in the sector globally. I am convinced a full recovery will be made when we overcome our current challenges, and travel remains a mid- and long-term growth sector.
How do you think travel will change from here?
Predominantly, health and safety considerations will be the uppermost consideration for travellers deciding where to travel and why. Booking and travel patterns were already changing pre-COVID, but now, post-COVID, have moved more confidently towards digital or personalised models. Customers are showing a greater willingness to opt for safe and exclusive services offered at their doorsteps, be it visa application (the popularity of our Visa At Your Doorstep service is a testament to that) or online booking of flight tickets. In fact, sensing this evolving need, VFS Global, in our 20th year now, was already focused on reimagining the customer journey by bringing more of the visa application process online and to the safety of our customers’ homes.
For business travellers across the globe, there is a new familiarity with virtual meetings. We can all expect to hear more often this fundamental question: “Do I need to travel or can I accomplish this over a video call?” By no means are video calls a novel concept, but a new comfort level with these tech-enabled tools has set in across different demographics, cutting across economic strata, age groups, gender, that would frankly have been unimaginable a year ago.
Sustainable tourism is also another outcome of the pandemic, with authorities now looking into how oversaturated destinations are managed, promoting lesser-known destinations to disperse the tourism footprint, in addition to moving to digital or environmentally-friendly channels for communication.
How is VFS Global preparing to address travel in the new normal?
Now in our 20th year, we have been working for some time on making various aspects of our business ‘future-ready’, and it is fair to say the pandemic has speeded up that process.
We are liaising with stakeholders across the value chain – travel trade, governments, technology partners, businesses – to meet new customer needs, develop partnerships to integrate health and safety measures into every step of the travel process, foster awareness and generate demand within the travel ecosystem.
To be specific, we are focusing on reimagining the customer journey by bringing digital to the heart of everything we do. Be it document pre-checks or payments, remote submission of applications, doorstep visa services or passport pick up and drop services, we are keen to introduce more conveniences into the visa application process.
This commitment to innovate and embrace the ‘new normal’ will provide a boost to all stakeholders. Travel is a powerful economic driver and as the leader in in visa services, we want to shoulder a big part of that responsibility, through embracing digitalisation, meeting the safety and health needs of travellers, collaborating with the ecosystem of governments and partners who support the smooth operations of our global business, and enabling employment in local economies.
Will visa processing see a change? If yes, what kind of?
Even before the pandemic struck, there was a discernible shift in how customers view any kind of service delivery, including travel or visa requirements. Now, virtual tech-enabled tools are used far more comfortably today across age groups and locations than ever before. Those changes have been reflected in the visa application process as well, and we need to adapt to those changes as we move forward.
Visa application processing by its very nature involves stringent protocols and checks built into every stage, as defined by regulations of various governments. Introducing digital models involves their integration into existing visa application processes while maintaining rigorous data protection standards.
We have been at the forefront of digital transformation in visa services – innovating services and solutions that enhance ease and convenience for customers globally.
Now we have a new element of health and safety measures tied into every step of this process, and also offer tech-enabled digital services that are a ‘remote’ alternative for customers. In addition, we also leveraged our global network to expand our service offering, to appointment booking for pre-departure COVID-19 tests in association with authorised medical laboratories, and health certificates on certain routes in association with technology companies.
I believe that while these rapid changes may lead to some apprehension amongst businesses in how to adapt to new economic conditions, it is also an opportunity for the services industry to look inward and integrate digital models within its processes.
How are these tech innovations by VFS enabling the ecosystem towards a safe future of travel?
As a market leader, a hallmark of our journey over two decades has been coming up with game-changing and future-ready innovations that have set benchmarks for the visa services industry. From pioneering the concept of a Joint Visa Application Centre (where one can apply for visas of multiple countries under one roof), to more recent innovations such as our popular Visa At Your Doorstep service (where you can apply for visas from a location of your choice), Mobile Visa Application Centres, Premium Lounges, health and travel insurances, etc.
Taking this a step further post-pandemic, we have amplified the focus on introducing tech-enabled tools for greater convenience and a ‘contactless’ experience for our customers.
We are now enabling customers to submit applications remotely, digital application pre-checks and payments, submit applications by appointments only, have expanded our popular Visa at Your Doorstep (VAYD) service across various countries with a Tweet to Book option, two-way passport pickup and drop services, and have adopted tools like IVR (interactive voice response) for our helplines and Chatbot helpdesks to improve turnaround times, and reduce errors to increase value for customers.
From a sustainability viewpoint, we are also working towards being carbon-neutral across our operations since some time. We launched a large project to lower our greenhouse gas emissions, avoiding plastic bottles at centres and switching to the use of renewable energy. Already today more than a quarter of our offices across the globe use renewable energy.
Overall, we are looking to increase process efficiencies for a customer-centric, leaner, technologically advanced, resilient VFS Global for the future. And this is the hope for the industry as a whole – that we all move towards agile, forward-looking transformational models that can sustain us well into the future.
There is a lot being discussed about travel credentials in terms of health passports, vaccine passports, etc. What according to you is the way forward for travel documentation in terms of international travel?
Health considerations have become arguably the most important factor of travel recovery for governments and travellers, whether at the origin or destination country. All stakeholders, including in major travel source markets such as India, will be keen to maintain that balance of assurances around health and safety.
Effective and integrated partnerships between the private sector and border control are already being discussed and rolled out in certain markets. For instance, VFS Global has partnered with technology companies like OK2Roam in the UK and the Singapore-based Accredify to explore / manage issuance of tamper-proof and verifiable health certificates for travel (and quicker immigration clearance) on certain routes (eg. for travel from Indonesia to Singapore), a service that will be extended to several corridors in the coming months.
We have also introduced seamless booking of appointments for COVID-19 tests (a service we have introduced in over 40 countries and in partnership with several airlines). We support the World Travel and Tourism Council’s (WTTC) efforts to promote pre-departure testing instead of everchanging quarantine rules that make travel planning almost impossible.
We’ve seen green shoots in the form of travel bubbles, pointing to the interoperability between governments or airlines, so that will be a crucial factor as well. The course of vaccination drives in various regions and the perception of safety will also impact travel restart.
With economic agendas tied in closely with travel and tourism, I am confident the steps taken are in a positive direction and the sector will recover despite the prevailing uncertainty.
Are these digital processes as safe and secure as traditional processes?
Very much so. Considering the data-intensive business we are in, VFS Global recognises that data protection is of paramount importance and employs the highest possible standards for the same. We securely manage high volumes of data throughout its lifecycle, whether in manual or digital formats, and in accordance with the security frameworks of our client governments.
The ISO Standard and GDPR regulations that we follow are the most rigorous in the world. We apply them globally – in over 140 countries – even if individual countries don’t require it. This means multi-level safeguards, not just in physical infrastructure but also in our virtual systems, are embedded in every step of our processes, and in our value-added services too.
We are taking innovation in digital data security a step further by now offering a blockchain-based digital locker solution called Docswallet, for secure storage, access, and shareability of digitally certified copies of documents. The solution revolutionises the way in which official documents are authenticated and exchanged, thereby eliminating the use of paper and significantly easing the process of transacting verified documents for customers. It is currently being widely used for document verification and transfers at universities by students applying to colleges.
Using tech-enabled tools, we are keen to move towards optimal integration into existing systems and processes, with the ultimate aim of enhanced customer satisfaction.
Will this move towards a digital journey prove to be an impetus for international travel when the borders reopen?
Moving in step with changes in customer behaviour, we have regarded the pandemic or these sporadic pauses in operations, as an opportunity to transform and make ourselves resilient for the future.
From visiting an airport to researching destinations and how to have a safe travel experience, health and safety measures are of paramount consideration for travellers now, and offering a ‘contactless’ or digital experience going forward will be crucial.
As an outcome, the travel services industry is likely to adopt more of these models – from travel planning to customer engagement, with greater assurance for sanitation standards, wider scope of travel insurance, and safety considerations.
We have already been making investments in future-ready digital services as mentioned and will continue to do so well into the future.
What are the things consumers should keep in mind when borders open for travel?
In a post-COVID world, when travellers and governments will still be closely tracking the course of the infection in various countries, it is quite likely that health and safety concerns will take precedence for all.
With changes in cross-border travel regulations and lockdowns the order of the day, customers will need to monitor the official travel advisories regularly for public health advice or lockdown guidance. Customers may have to: be vigilant about health issues, consider second-city travel (or travel to less crowded tourist destination), make more meticulous travel plans to limit any unforeseen circumstances, be prepared for unplanned stays in case of movement restrictions, check for the validity of your passport, understand if medical insurance covers COVID-19, and always check authentic sources of information.
With regards to VFS Global, latest advisories are updated regularly, and customers are urged to visit our social media channels or our COVID-19 Customer Advisories page or the mission-specific page on vfsglobal website for the most updated real time information.