(CNN) — Chaitali Aggarwal had 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’re still waiting.
Of course, as with all globetrotters, Covid-19 got in the way. But while travel has mostly resumed as the pandemic recedes, Aggarwal still has a bureaucratic mountain chain standing in the way of his American dream.
She’s not the only one.
Many Indians hoping to travel to the US for holidays or to see family are now facing huge delays in getting the necessary interviews to obtain a visa. The problem is also affecting would-be visitors from other countries.
This means that one of the largest sources of tourism in the United States has been severely limited, potentially losing millions of dollars in revenue for the country.
“We make any appointment, any time,” Aggarwal says. “But I don’t think that will happen anytime soon.”
In 2020, Aggarwal hired an agent to help navigate the complicated US tourist visa process. She secured visa interview appointments, but these have been postponed due to the pandemic. Now, due to changed circumstances, she had to start the process again.
And, having already blasted 14,000 rupees ($171) in fees and payments to the third-party agent, she has to decide if she can afford to do it again.
To obtain a business or tourist visa, an Indian citizen must submit information about the purpose of the visit, proof that he can support himself financially while in the US, employment history and education, details of relatives living in the US, and a complete itinerary .
The final step in the visa process is an in-person interview, if you can get one.
According to the US State Department, the waiting time in early December for one such interview at the US Embassy in New Delhi was 936 calendar days, including weekends and public holidays. In Hyderabad there were 780. In Mumbai there are 999.
A State Department representative told CNN Travel that efforts are underway to expedite visa interview processes, including hiring new employees and hiring “suitable family members of our diplomatic staff to fill consular positions.” abroad and in the United States”.
They acknowledged the difficulties were still ongoing, but said the department was also expanding the interview waiver process for some temporary workers, students and academic exchange visitors. They said global visa processing is expected to reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels by 2023.
“While we have made great strides in recovering from the pandemic-related closures and staffing challenges, we are still working to address the significant demand for visa services,” the representative added.
“We recognize that some applicants may still face lengthy visa interview wait times. We are committed to reducing wait times as quickly as possible, recognizing the critical role international travel plays in the U.S. economy and the importance of family reunification”.
Critics say these measures are not enough. And it’s not just travelers like Aggarwal who are feeling the impact, but US companies as well.
The United States Travel Association, a travel industry body, commissioned a study examining three of the largest US inbound travel markets – Brazil, India and Mexico – and the financial and reputational damage resulting from the loss of own tourists.
USTA president and CEO Geoff Freeman says potentially the most significant impact of these delays is that travelers could fall in love with another destination and decide the United States isn’t worth it, ever.
“The visitor you dissuade today is also the visitor who chooses not to come tomorrow,” she says.
This means significant revenue losses. 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 fifth largest spender.
The USTA study estimates that the United States is potentially losing $1.6 billion in tourism revenue from Indian tourists who choose to go elsewhere in 2023.
The situation is made more precarious by the fact that many insurers will not cover trips interrupted by visa issues.
“Your travel insurance provider is unlikely to cover your canceled trip if you haven’t received your travel visa,” says Jeff Rolander, vice president of claims at Faye Travel Insurance.
“Unfortunately, even if requested in time and late or simply not requested on time, this counts as a necessary document to enter your destination, making it impossible for a supplier to protect you against cancellation costs if you didn’t have it on your scheduled departure date for the trip.”
USTA’s Freeman doubts that will change any time soon, despite official promises.
“To date, we have not seen the State Department’s desire to address this issue,” he said.
Aggarwal, who changed her original plans and visited Canada this summer, is trying to decide whether she can financially or emotionally afford to restart her US tourist visa application.
However, he 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 so long.”
Photo: New Delhi Indira Gandhi International Airport. Image by Getty.