Rants 'n' Raves|16/02/2012

The Biggest Challenge for Medical Tourism in India? Getting a Visa.

As an American, I am spared from having to apply for visas to enter most countries.  India is one of those exceptions.  That’s cool.  I understand.  Not everyone likes us as much as we think. But my recent encounter has me thinking and re-thinking that the biggest challenge for India in medical tourism is not medical; it’s getting a visa.

Here’s the back story.

I’ve been invited to Delhi to visit a hospital, and that means I have get a visa.

Most countries that require visas either give it to you on arrival, like Turkey, or have online application and payment systems, like Australia. India is old school. Their visa application process is test of your resolve.


TECH INDIA WORKERS by Mark Holloway, on Flickr

Given India’s reputation for developing and running IT systems that run the back offices of many of the world’s Fortune 500 companies, you might think that India would have a super slick system to handle visa applications.  You would be dead wrong.  I describe it as new age meets stone age.  It’s like a scene straight out of the cartoon strip Bizarro.  Surreal.

Here in Bangkok where I live, the Indian embassy has outsourced the visa processing service to a Swiss firm called VFS Global. (Let the irony of that settle in before you move on.) It starts out straightforward enough. There is a web page that leads you to a form that you must complete, but not submit, online. You print out the form and take it to the visa application office between 9am-11am along with US$75, a copy of your passport and two passport photos.

There are people to check your work before you submit the application. They rejected my visa application because my two passport photos weren’t identical.  Back of the line. Someone in front of me downloaded the application form but completed it by hand. Incorrect. Back of the line. Another person did not know his parent’s birth dates (why do you need this??). Back of the line.

It seems that no one has completed their visa application form correctly. There is a lot of mumbling and grumbling. People are comparing notes and passing on advice. We’re all scrambling to find way out of the frying pan; only to end up in the fire.

The VFS ‘customer service’ representative treats us like children with special needs, and tells us what we need to do to make the situation right. I have to go get new photos. The man who filled out his form by hand has to go type out his application. The woman who does not know her parent’s birthdate has gone outside to call them long distance.

Finally, I can submit the documents and am notified it takes 4 business days to process the visa. I am instructed to return to the visa application office between 2pm-5pm to pick up my passport. So that’s what I do. I get there promptly at 2 pm to pick up my passport, and I wait and wait… and wait.

It’s now 5pm and the room is packed with every nationality under the sun. Businessmen in suits, monks in saffron robes, and yoga disciples trying to ‘stay in the moment’. It’s standing room only and the herd is getting restless and angry. One French guy, who just can’t take it anymore, starts venting his anger in a tirade of broken English, but arguing is futile and reason is meaningless.   We are trapped.

I mean that literally. No phones, laptops or iPads are allowed in the visa office, and a rent-a-guard is on hand to ensure compliance. If you leave your seat, you’ll have to stand for the duration. As I watch this all unfold, I think to myself “who the hell would put up with this if they were sick and needed to travel to India for medical treatment?”.

Apparently I am not alone. The Indian Institute of Tourism and Travel Management recently commissioned a report on medical tourism and found, surprise surprise, that India’s medical visa application process actually drives patients to Thailand. You don’t say?

Three and a half hours later, they call my number. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. All is know is that no one who has a choice would choose to do this.

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