The US, UK and European Union (EU) countries are seemingly battling to clear visa application backlogs, leaving travellers frustrated and having ripple effects on economies. These backlogs have been blamed on Covid restrictions, which have seen a reduction in the number of staff in consular offices, or cancellation of contractual arrangements with external service providers. Cape Town-based businessman Alistair Fairweather has been unable to secure an appointment to apply for a US visa to attend a week-long business conference in November. All US consulates in southern Africa informed him there were no appointments available for the next 12 months. South…
The US, UK and European Union (EU) countries are seemingly battling to clear visa application backlogs, leaving travellers frustrated and having ripple effects on economies.
These backlogs have been blamed on Covid restrictions, which have seen a reduction in the number of staff in consular offices, or cancellation of contractual arrangements with external service providers.
Cape Town-based businessman Alistair Fairweather has been unable to secure an appointment to apply for a US visa to attend a week-long business conference in November. All US consulates in southern Africa informed him there were no appointments available for the next 12 months.
South Africans wanting US visas have been flying as far afield as Namibia, Mozambique and Zambia for visa application appointments.
Fairweather’s client in the US paid for his ticket to attend the conference, but even the client’s letter addressed to the US consulate in Cape Town could not ensure an appointment.
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“The problem for me is, regardless of how long the backlog is, the only way you can apply for an expedited appointment is to have an appointment. And you can’t book any appointments in Cape Town, or, as far as I can tell, in Johannesburg,” he said.
Fairweather said in desperation he was going to try the US consulates in Namibia and Botswana, but was not hopeful as he has been told there were no US visa appointment slots open in any southern African countries for the next 12 months. He said this was despite the US consulate website stating the minimum waiting period was 60 days.
A US consulate staffer has told him they were not taking appointments at all.
Last week, Reuben E Brigety, US ambassador to SA, told a radio station that plans were in place to assist with the backlog in visa appointments but, seemingly, this has not materialised yet.
Otto de Vries, chief executive of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents, said they have had a number of engagements regarding interventions from affected countries and are cautiously optimistic.
“We have certainly been communicating with the state department in Washington with regards to the concerns with the American visa delay. And we have also been communicating with the head of the European Union … in Pretoria to highlight the concerns about a number of EU embassies and consulates increasingly falling behind in the capacity, or abilities to fulfil the role of preparing and executing these applications,” he said.
De Vries said this issue was concerning as it had an economic impact. The association had been vocal and there was a high level of awareness about the scale of the problem.
“What we are dealing with at the moment is a massive backlog for the US and, to the best of my understanding, from the last update we received, you are unable to obtain an appointment at the US embassy until March next year,” he said.
‘A surprising surge in demand for visas’
Monique Swart, founder of African Business Travel Association, said understaffing in embassies had been blamed for the visa delays, saying there had also been a surprising surge in demand for visas. It was disappointing embassies were blaming staff shortages and with so many layoffs over Covid, one had to ask if enough efforts have been made to rehire staff.
“Travel agents are obviously caught in the middle. Very frustrating for them with the blame often falling on them and having to deal with irate and frustrated clients, and not being able to give them any good news,” Swart said.
She said her company was focused on corporate travel and was most concerned about the number of business trips being postponed or cancelled due to the backlogs and the effect this has had on companies and the economy, since Covid.
“As much as companies are used to having business meetings online, there is now a great need for business travellers to get back to face-to-face meetings with their clients and partners. These backlogs are causing a massive delay,” Swart said.
She did not see the prospect of any change until the second quarter next year.
The US embassy in SA is yet to comment.
European Commission spokesperson Fiorella Belciu said they had received numerous e-mails and letters from visa applicants in different parts of the world trying to obtain an appointment for visa application at member states’ consular offices, without success.
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Belciu said there were a number of reasons for these difficulties but, in particular, Covid travel restrictions had forced some member states to reduce staff or to cancel contractual arrangements with external service providers.
“In the context of the resumption of international travel, pressure in some locations can create bottlenecks for external service providers and consulates in dealing with a rising number of visa applications,” Belciu said.
Belciu said consulates and external service providers must ensure applicants could swiftly obtain appointments to lodge applications, even in peak season. Belciu said they had asked member states’ visa authorities to improve operational capacity in order to expedite the visa application process.
“We will continue monitoring the situation worldwide,” she added.