New Delhi – The immigration racket involving 39 fake Indian pilgrims busted in New Zealand and the BBC sting exposing a massive scam in Britain involving Indians will give the travel industry a bad name. Both countries could now become stricter with issuing visas, say travel agents.
“The travel segment is booming and these immigration scams could pose a threat to outbound tourism. Countries in Europe and New Zealand might become more stringent with issuing visas, and local immigration norms could be tightened for tourists,” Surinder Sodhi, vice-president of Travel Corp, a Delhi-international travel agency that offers both inbound and outbound tour packages, told IANS.
“Almost all travel and tour operators, including us, have Britain and New Zealand on our itinerary,” Sodhi said.
“If a customer or traveller runs away on a tour, the entire process of packaging a holiday takes a beating, and then travel agents find it difficult to promote international destinations,” he said.
Sodhi feels that the representatives of the tour and travel industry should come together to thrash out guidelines for group tours to ensure that a traveller or a customer is not one actually seeking an escape route to a foreign country through a travel agent.
In New Zealand, 39 Indians disappeared en route to attend the Catholic Church’s week-long World Youth Day (WYD) festivities in Sydney, while in Britain, the BBC in an undercover sting exposed a London-based criminal network that used fake passports, identity documents and human carriers to bring in illegal migrants, mostly from Punjab. The immigrants were settled in around 40 safe houses in Southall.
Sodhi said: “The travel agents must ensure that the traveller has a family or home to return to, a good job or business and must be asked to furnish a bank guarantee so that even if he or she manages to dodge the authorities after reaching an international destination, future bank transactions can help trace the missing person’s whereabouts. After all, an illegal immigrant or a fugitive will need money because that is the primary reason why people migrate abroad – to make a fortune. The industry also needs to maintain passengers’ profiles.”
The current passenger screening process is rudimentary. Travel agents only check passengers’ passports and seek identity proof.
Explaining the modus operandi, Sodhi said the illegal immigrant usually does not carry blank passports. “They visit cheaper destinations like Singapore and Hong Kong where the authorities give visas on arrival. These trips do not cost more than Rs.15,000 to Rs.20,000. After two or three such trips, they usually travel to Europe and Australia and New Zealand so that their passports, which have adequate number of stamps, do not arouse suspicion. This has to be plugged,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Travel Agents Association for India (TAAI) also felt that the process of screening passengers should be made more stringent. “We only check passports at the moment. In some cases, we check how the ticket has been procured when the traveller just wants to book hotels and sight-seeing trips abroad with our agents but purchases the tickets on their own,” a TAAI spokesperson said.