Given the buzz created by most-awaited international cricket championship, a VFS Global head illustrates how sporting events can drastically increase tourism income and change travel trends.
Excitement has been expectedly at fever pitch among Indian cricket fans with the World Cup being hosted in England and Wales in May-June this year. The British High Commission said 3,500 Indians every day were applying for a UK visa, with as many as 80,000 in total expected to travel to the tournament - enough to fill Lord's almost three times over.
According to the Global Tourism Council, there's always a rise in the number of visa applications from India to the UK during the summer months, though it estimates that between 1,000 to 1,500 applications each day could be motivated by the World Cup alone.
These numbers demonstrate the impact that sporting events can have in boosting a country's tourism income. Last year's football World Cup in Russia, for example, attracted 2.9 million foreign visitors with cities previously not on the tourist map benefiting significantly - foreign tourist flows grew 10 times in Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg and 15 times in Volgograd, for instance.
Countries holding such high-profile sporting events can also enhance the 'travel experience' by implementing systems designed to persuade visitors to return. In Russia, for example, many fans took advantage of the 'Fan ID' system created exclusively for match-goers - an ID card that also acted as a 'visa-with-benefits', allowing an extended stay beyond the usual 30-day limit and free travel on Russian public transport.
The scheme, administered by VFS Global with its physical presence in 147 countries, was so successful that the Russian government extended the scheme so that those who held the Fan ID could travel to Russia again before the end of 2018 without having to apply for another visa.
This summer's Cricket World Cup is set to have a similar effect on India-UK travel, as shown by the numbers applying for a visa. But the increased number of Indians driven by a passion for cricket travelling to the United Kingdom is reflective of a wider interesting trend in international travel among Indian citizens.
The latest figures collated by VFS Global show that 5.28 million visa applications were processed from India in 2018, marking a 14 per cent increase in the number of applications since 2017. This increase clearly shows that foreign travel is no longer the domain of a privileged few in India, with travel from Tier 2 cities in India, such as Jalandhar, Chandigarh, Pondicherry and Goa, contributing significantly to the overall growth in outbound travel.
Cheaper flights, improved flight connections and the ease of applying for a visa may be having an impact on these trends. In terms of flight connections, Indian cities are better connected than ever through domestic flights, meaning more people can take an internal flight to major international airports like Delhi and Mumbai for onward international travel.
International connections between India and the UK are also being enhanced: from June, British Airways will offer four additional flights a week between London and Mumbai. And, later this year, Bengaluru will become the first city in India, and just the fourth destination on the BA worldwide network, to get the new A350 aircraft service.
Visa processing arrangements are also making life simpler. In particular, on-demand 'doorstep delivery' of visa services - where the visa application service comes to the applicant's home or office, rather than them having to visit the application centre to enrol biometrics and submit documents - is improving customer service.
Travel in the other direction, from the UK to India, is also going strong. According to the latest statistics from the Indian Ministry of Tourism, 990,000 UK tourists visited India from the UK in 2017, an increase of 4.7 per cent on the previous year and accounting for 10 per cent of all visitors, behind only Bangladesh and the US.
The diaspora connection as solid as ever, with one in four visitors from the UK-Indian diaspora. While 11 per cent of all visits were for business reasons, leisure is still the most likely reason for travel with 42 per cent of all visitors travelling for holidays. Interestingly, travellers from the UK aged 45 and over now comprise 50 per cent of the foreign tourist arrivals from the UK to India.
Here, too, visa processes are making the passage to India and other countries much smoother. Using the 'doorstep' service, travellers in the UK too can ask for visa application staff to visit their office or home to collect biometric data and process applications or courier their documentation to them direct - even at the airport.
For those who do visit an application centre, they now have a choice of 11 different centres across the UK, including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester and Glasgow - no longer is the need to queue outside an embassy waiting for your visa application to be processed. Applicants can get personal assistance with filling in their forms if they're worried about making a mistake.
They can ask for a text message service to keep them updated as to what stage their application is at. Or they even have the option of retaining their passport when applying for a visa so that they can visit other countries in the meantime - a key advantage for business travellers.
As the Cricket World Cup impact takes hold, these trends show that reciprocal travel between India and the UK is stronger than ever - or to use a cricketing term, well and truly 'not out'.
Jiten Vyas is Chief Operating Officer (Europe) at VFS Global, the world's largest outsourcing and technology services specialist for governments and diplomatic missions worldwide.