The reduction in international flights due to COVID-19 has led to an unprecedented drop in foreign visitors to Spain. According to the Permanent Immigration Observatory (OPI) of the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, Spain issued around 380,000 visas in 2020, a drop of 80% compared to visas issued during the same period the previous year. However, with the gradual reopening of international borders and increased demand to restore global mobility, the entire ecosystem of companies and institutions linked to tourism are rethinking new tools and procedures to make the sector more secure, robust and future-proof.
In this context, Chris Dix, the Business Development Director of VFS Global, shares his experiences and insights into the business of VFS Global, a specialist in visa outsourcing for governments, with operations in more than 140 countries and 62 client governments.
During these months of health scares, many companies in the sector have been forced to reduce their face-to-face services. How has this need for distance affected your service delivery?
This pandemic has been a challenge for all companies globally. At VFS Global we have always been committed to ensuring the ability of our client governments to provide the highest possible levels of security and quality of service to both travellers visiting their countries and their citizens when required for consular services or passport processing.
During the health crisis we were able to resume operations efficiently and safely, in full compliance with the requirements of our customers' governments and the frequent changes in health advisories in the countries in which we operate. This level of commitment to service delivery has further strengthened the faith and trust our customers have in us. Our staff around the world understand that the work we do is extremely important and that, for many of our customers, we are the face of the governments we serve.
Undoubtedly, travel in 2021 is primarily domestic, which means a significant loss of foreign money through our largest industry, tourism. How can international travel be improved and facilitated during this pandemic?
Emerging technology will play a key role in ensuring effective and integrated collaboration between the private sector and border control. This will be necessary for the resumption of travel for leisure, business and global events. In the last 18 months, we have witnessed numerous innovations such as the International Air Transport Association's (IATA) Travel Pass, a digital passport that allows verification of test and vaccination data, Spain's Health Check Form, which captures the health status of international travellers, the UK Government's NHS App, which demonstrates vaccination status and, among many more, France's TousAntiCovid app, which hosts its health card.
In this regard, VFS Global, in pursuit of such technological innovation, partnered with Singapore-based start-up Accredify to issue incorruptible and verifiable health certificates for travel from Indonesia to Singapore, and we intend to expand the model to other corridors.
Given the potential of the travel industry as an economic driver and catalyst for social development goals, it is critical that the entire ecosystem embraces digital technologies seamlessly, because these technologies enable solutions for travellers' health and safety needs. Focusing on innovation is the only way to regain the pre-crisis momentum of global mobility.
How can VFS Global help balance the importance of border controls with the entry requirements for customers?
Border control policies are obviously not something we get involved in. However, we are constantly looking for innovative solutions to make the visa application process as simple and easy as possible for the traveller.
The downturn in the travel market over the last 18 months has given us the opportunity at VFS Global to invest even more resources in digitalisation. For example, our 'Visa on your doorstep' service has been a milestone in the customer experience journey, allowing travellers to prioritise secure travel by opting into the entire visa application process, including biometric enrolment, from the location of their choice. In other words, the entire process can be done at home.
Similarly, our electronic visa on arrival (eVOA) service, which does not require pre-travel biometric enrolment by a government, is now operational for visitors from Thailand and Suriname. This fully digital solution has been a great success because it allows for a faster and smoother clearance process and easier customer service on arrival at the airport immigration area.
How will the relationship between travellers and visa issuing centres change as a result of this pandemic?
We are seeing an increasing demand from customers for contactless, more secure and personalised solutions. Given the importance of travel security, this trend is expected to become more widespread in the future. In the area of visa processing, this transformation is already palpable with services and options such as online upload of application documents and on-site services for visa application submission and biometric data capture, as well as the processing of required pre-departure PCR tests to make travel planning a seamless and hassle-free experience for consumers.