Today I started re-reading Ms Pallavi Aiyer’s book on Europe “Punjabi Parmesan”. She starts by sharing her anxiety and feeling of being treated second-class as she waits with a blue passport (Indian) in the queue at immigration in Brussels while her Spanish husband and baby boy sailing through the area with their maroon (Spain) passports. This reminded me of one of the many incidents I have had with applying for VISA or the experiences I have faced at the immigration counters in a foreign airport.

The below incident happened to me in 2016, for that year’s summer vacation, my wife & I decided to go to the beautiful city of Paris (and France), along with our teenage son and my adult niece. I applied for Schengen Visa for the four of us with all its detailed paperwork, formalities, and a fee of INR 4400 for each one of us. After submitting the forms and our biometrics with the agency’s (VFS) France counter near Ethiraj College in Chennai we were informed that all our applications were rejected with no reasons told! On asking they said I can pay another INR 17600 (USD 250) and reapply, then I may be told the reason.

Shocked, I took the papers to a travel agent I know. Within minutes he told me what had gone wrong. My bank statement for my savings account was showing a debit balance of a lakh or so rupees. The rejection felt bizarre to me for a few reasons:

  1. One I had also given my fixed (term) deposit statement showing a figure which would have been sufficient for our stay in France for a whole year if we decide to be there for that long.
  2. Second, my savings account had the sweep-facility turned ON, meaning it was connected to the term deposits dynamically. No bank in India gives credit to an individual on their savings account. Even a basic understanding of reading Indian bank statements by the scrutinizing officer of France/VFS would have been enough to get this.
  3. Third, on the same passport, I had submitted to France, I had a 10-year multiple entry VISA to the USA (my third extension), 5-year multiple entries to the UK. On top of this, I had been to Germany through a Schengen VISA about 7 years prior to this application and to more than ten other countries in the past.

At that time, it felt obvious to us, if France wants to do a lousy job on their VISA processing, to which they have every right to, and don’t want my money I am not interested to visit the country – Interestingly, tourism forms about 10% of GDP of France and about 89 million tourists visit the country every, the most of any country in the world. The world is bigger than Europe. As the Tamil saying goes அழையாதார் வாசல் மிதியாதே, meaning “Don’t visit those who have not invited you”. Instead of France we four went to Thailand and had a memorable vacation – for the same money we planned to spend in Paris’ ordinary hotels, we treated ourselves to five-star resorts in Bangkok and Phuket.

Because of this incident, I learned two lessons. The first was to have the documents that you are planning to submit with the VISA application be checked by a reputed travel agent – foreign embassies have no incentive to go through applications carefully, most often they don’t care – so it is our responsibility to prepare them in the format that they are familiar with. If you don’t want to take this trouble, then save yourself and don’t apply to visit the rich world. The second was to switch off the auto-sweep facility in my savings account so that in the future (and hopefully) it will always show a credit balance. These proved successful when I applied for Schengen VISA again in 2017 for visiting Spain for the La Tomatina – after getting the VISA and spending money for all the bookings, unfortunately, I couldn’t travel due to a bereavement in the family.

After taming this raging pandemic, as the world opens, countries that depend on tourism will do well to make tourists feel welcomed. That is the only way their economies will grow. And in the 21st century, it is the Chinese and Indians (a fraction of the former but still more than others) who are spending money abroad for the cobblestoned high streets of Europe and in Vegas casinos.

Footnote: The first time I went abroad was to the UK in the late 1990s and then to the USA  – both the countries have the toughest procedures for Indians visiting them as Tourist or on Business. Over the decades, even these two countries, especially the USA has made the procedure easier – rejection rates may be higher. For the USA, if you are renewing your VISA the process has been made simpler than before.

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