`Online Visa’ service by Thomas Cook (India) Ltd – Fraudulent or not?

29th July, 2015

One of the biggest problem Indian travelers face is that of information on visa and procedures around it to obtain the same. For instant, Indian traveler holding an ordinary passport wanting to travel to say Viet Nam need to first know whether he/she needs a visa to enter the country or not. Now if the traveler needs a visa to enter Viet Nam, then he/she needs to know whether he/she can obtain the visa-on-arrival in Viet Nam, or can they get the same through an Electronic Travel Authorization (popularly characterizing e-visa) or through the traditional route which is making an application to an Immigration Office/Embassy/Consulate in India or in Viet Nam. The quest doesn’t end here because even if the traveler gathers information on the type of visa they need to enter Vietnam, information on the documents needed to obtain the same continues to haunt the traveler. 

To assist the traveler, in a recent attempt, Thomas Cook (India) launched an `Online Visa’ service with the objective of empowering its customers with detailed visa information (visa requirements per destination, downloadable visa forms, consular addresses and timings, processing duration and visa cost). Amit Madhan, Chief Operating Officer – IT & E Services, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd says “….with visa services online, our intent is to eliminate multi-level complexities. Out 2 step process enables easy access to online visa information with fulfilment of visa services (drop off documents, checks by an expert, submission and collection and final delivery of a visa stamped passport) executed offline – via our extensive pan India outlets” (see more details at http://indiablooms.com/ibns_new/travel-details/N/173/thomas-cook-india-launches-online-visas.html)

On the face of it, the new service provided by the corporate appears to solve the nightmare of the Indian traveler. However, the question is does it actually solve the problem or does it add to the nightmare? How can a “help” service offered be a nightmare? The answer to this is very simple – by not having up to date information and/or by using up-to date information to its advantage at the cost of ill-informing consumers (in this case the Indian traveler). Let me illustrate my point with a simple example.

Let’s continue with the example of Vietnam. For instance, you want to travel to Vietnam for tourist purposes on the 1st of September, 2015. Now you would like to know 1. do you need a visa to enter Vietnam or not? And if you do need a visa to enter Vietnam then can you obtain the same 1. on-arrival; 2. or an e-visa; 3. or do you need to go through the traditional route of applying through an Immigration Office/Embassy/Consulate. The `Online Visa’ provided by Thomas Cook clearly misses out on this very important piece of information as it directly leads to the list of documents required to obtain a Vietnamese tourist visa. However, the fact is that Indians can obtain a 

1. visa-on-arrival in Vietnam – subject to certain conditions such as the travel has to be by air, AND the traveler has to have an approval letter with him/her from the Immigration Department of Viet Nam (see below on how to obtain the approval letter). For more details read http://www.vietnamvisa-easy.com/pages/vietnam-visa-on-arrival-for-indian-passport-holders

2. By applying through the traditional route by making application at the Vietnamese embassy/consulate in India. 

Moving forward, the list of documents mentioned on the website is outdated. The `Online Visa’ provided by Thomas Cook states “REQUIRED LIST OF DOCUMENTS FOR YOUR VISA APPLICATION – 1.Passport should be valid for at least six months from the date of submission of visa application 2.One Visa Application form to be filled completely and signed by the applicant. The phone number of the applicant must be filled in the form 3. Two recent colour photograph, 35×45 mm in size with white background 4. Covering letter from the applicant on company’s letter head stating his name, designation, purpose and duration of visit 5. Proof of accommodation: hotel reservation including the name and phone number of hotel. If staying at friend’s / relatives place, the applicant can stay maximum up to 15 days, if the stay is longer than the host needs to apply for the visa for the applicant at Vietnamese immigration 6. Proof of airline reservation for a round trip e.g. reservation slip. 7.One photocopy of the first and last pages of the passport. 8. 6 months Updated Bank Statement. 9.Day to day Itinerary. Important Note: Please note that the Embassy doesn’t accept any old/expired passport from the applicant. If old / expired passport has any valid visa, then the copy of the same should be submitted.” 

However the fact is given below (this is a photo which I clicked on the 19th June at the Vietnamese Consulate in Mumbai, India):

  

For legibility and eligibility reasons, the announcement made by the Consulate General of the S.R. of Vietnam, Mumbai, India says “Visa Formalities (effective from 01/01/2015) – FOR ALL VISA CATEGORIES (TOURIST/BUSINESS; ONE MONTH, OVER ONE MONTH, SIX MONTHS, OVER SIX MONTHS…):

You are required to get the Approval Letter from the Immigration Department of Vietnam for your trip. There are 2 options to apply for the Approval Letter:

Option 1: Contact your partner/invitor/relatives/friends in Viet Nam and send that letter to you.

Option 2: Request the Consulate General to help you in applying for the Approval Letter from the Immigration Department of Viet Nam. 

The submit the following documents to the Consulate General for applying visas:

1. Passport: Original ad 01 copy

2. Photograph: 01 piece, size 4×6 cm or passport size.

3. Approval Letter: 01 copy

4. Fully-Filled Visa Application Form.

The Visa Fee will be calculated in accordance with the content of the Approval Letter. Your Visa will be issued in the same day (about 2 hours).

In my own personal experience – I was traveling to Viet Nam by road from Cambodia. To obtain the tourist visa for Viet Nam, on the 19th of June, 2015, I submitted at the Consulate General of Viet Nam in Mumbai, India 1. a completed visa application form along with the prescribed photo; 2.  a copy of the passport; 3. A confirmed ticket of travel from Mumbai (India) to Siem Reap (Cambodia) and return flight from Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) to Mumbai (India); and 4. a fee to obtain the approval letter from the Immigration Department. On the 24th of June, 2015, my passport was stamped with a one-month single entry tourist visa for Viet Nam. For information – I was traveling on the 27th of June, 2015. So in less than 10 days, I had a visa stamped on my passport and I did not have to have submit most of the documents such as stated by the `Online Visa’ service of Thomas Cook (India).

Back to the Thomas Cook, visa charge per traveler for providing the `Online Visa’ service by Thomas Cook (India) comes to a total of INR7965 with a break-up as Embassy Charges (INR5400) + Handling Charges (INR2000) + Courier Charges (INR250) + Total Service Tax (INR315). So technically, you are happily paying Thomas Cook (India) Ltd a total of INR2565 (INR7965-INR5400) for not only misguiding you with wrong information but also adding to your travel woes which you only thought would reduce by brokering with them. 

Asymmetry of information can have negative spillovers on market participants and the government should pay particular attention to counteract such spillovers. In this case, Thomas Cook (India) Ltd capitalizing on Indian traveler woes of obtaining a visa for traveling abroad is not only emptying a travelers (consumer) pocket but also harming outbound tourism from India  which should rather be a great worry for the Government of India and the concerned ministry such as the Ministry of Tourism. And the funny bit is that it is all at the expense of a private enterprise openly abusing the system. 

One may argue that this is only for a single country, then try Cambodia! 

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