Customer experience is often not the first concept that comes to mind when discussing the visa application process. But attitudes are evolving. Fast.
The visa application world is changing, because our world is changing. More and more countries are recognising the importance of foreign visitors to the health of their economies, be they students enrolling in a university, business travellers in search of opportunities, foreign workers or tourists. They either generate direct revenue (university fees) or increase taxable income (tourism and work), and the competition is intensifying to attract them in Western countries.
The Importance of Tourist Money
Tourism is vital to the economy, even in western countries. In France, for example, the tourism industry employed more than 330,000 people in 2020 according to the OECD, a club of mainly rich countries. In the UK, the figure was more than 240,000 in 2019, the latest year for which statistics are available. In sunny Spain, the figure for 2021 was more than 739,000. In 2019, the last full year before the Covid-19 pandemic, tourists spent 53 billion euros in France, more than 56 billion pounds in the UK and 71 billion euros in Spain. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic made a significant dent in these figures: in Spain, tourist spending was down to a little more than 16 billion in 2020. The same story goes for France, which saw a decline to 31 billion euros.
Now that the tourism industry is in full recovery, we are seeing visa volumes growing once more. This growth is sorely needed: the figures show how hard the tourism industry was hit by the decline in international travel.
In this context, a seamless visa application process will indeed be important. Faced with lengthy and unreliable procedures, would-be tourists might decide to select another destination, or, if planning to visit the Schengen area, try a different entry point.
The War for Talent Goes International
The rich world is facing a hiring problem. Everywhere from the USA to France and the United Kingdom, companies looking for talent are confronted with labour shortages. As a result, countries will be increasingly inclined to turn to foreign markets to compensate. Last year, the UK faced a sudden lack of lorry drivers that caused many petrol stations to run dry. This year, the war in Ukraine is causing a shortage of pickers in British farms. On the other side of the channel, France is facing its own challenges. More bad news: according to McKinsey, this trends is here to stay: many people are quitting their jobs for something else, from better-paying jobs to occupations that guarantee a better work-life balance.
In order to compensate for the worker shortages in their national markets, many OECD countries are increasingly looking to hire abroad. But Covid-related travel restrictions and the war in Ukraine are also drying up traditional sources of labour. Germany, for instance, used to rely on Poles and Ukrainians to provide the bulk of seasonal workers in the farming sector. Not anymore: they are now actively approaching Turkish citizens. A telltale sign of the crisis: even foreigner-shy Japan is now considering relaxing its stringent immigration policy, according to an article published by The Economist in December 2021.
Be it for short-term employment of for longer-term assignments – believe it or not, there is now a shortage of investment bankers – foreign workers’ willingness to move to another country will in part be influenced by the ease of obtaining the necessary visas. Tackling the labour shortage effectively will therefore require streamlining visa procedures and taking customer experience into account. Neither foreign labourers nor their potential employers can afford bottlenecks and unpredictability when obtaining a visa at the right time is essential to prevent disruptions.
Funding Higher Education
Last, but not least, foreign students have increasingly become a major source of funding for universities. In the United Kingdom alone, international students make up 20.7% of the total student population. In 2020-21, 605,130 international students were studying in the UK. Among them, 452,225 came from non-EU countries. China, India and Nigeria are the top 3 countries of origin. Last year, more than 450,000 foreign students applied for a student visa. To gauge the importance of these students to university budgets, it is worth noting that for the academic year 2021–2022, annual university fees were somewhere between GBP 10,000 and GBP 20,000, with some universities charging as much GBP 32,081. In other words, a rather conservative estimate would be that foreign students bring between GBP 4.5 and GBP 9 billion of extra funding each year to British universities.
Aside from funding, there is also the question of the dynamism brought by foreign graduates. According to the Financial Times, nearly 60% of university startup founders in the UK are foreign students. This is another reason why they are particularly valuable to the country they choose for their studies.
The Unavoidable Question of Customer Experience
All these trends combine to draw a compelling picture: tourists, students and workers are becoming critical to the economies of many OECD countries. Competition will likely increase between these countries for all types of travellers. In that respect, visa procedures will undoubtedly make a difference. As we outlined in a recent article on customer experience in the visa sector, it doesn’t necessarily mean procedures have to be faster: our surveys indicate that predictability is by far the most important factor. They do, however, need to be sufficiently customer-centric to encourage applications, rather than acting as a potential blocker. Segmenting customers and developing a tailored approach to different customer groups can help with this. As a specialist of customer experience, both online and at our worldwide network of visa application centres, TLScontact is ideally placed to assist governments in meeting this challenge.
Article written by Graham Rigby,
Director Product & Marketing