Global travel boom: an opportunity

Global travel boom: an opportunity

Rakesh Wadhwa
The Himalayan Times , Monday, July 11, 2005


Shalini and I recently returned from a trip to the US and UK. We had first hand experience of the boom taking place in travel worldwide. People are traveling as never before. New York was full and so was London. To get a room in Manhattan, we had to use all our contacts and persuasive skills. In London as we stayed with Shalini's sister, we were spared the torment of finding accommodation.

Shalini attended her nephew's graduation ceremony at Wharton in Philadelphia and all that she could find in that US city was a single suite for one night which she, her sister and sister's husband shared. I joined them later in New York flying in from Las Vegas. I have never before seen Vegas so crowded in the May heat. It had yet another mega hotel casino - the $2.7 billion, 2,716 rooms "Wynn" - open its doors and yet it caused no room vacancies. Vegas is well set to achieve yet another year of its hotel occupancies exceeding 90%.

The Vegas airport was full of people eating, drinking, gambling at the slot machines, and generally having a good time. However, the massive movement of people had a downside. The lines at the airport security seemed interminable; the result of a severe shortage of US federal government's security screeners who had to check each passenger prior to boarding. Some of their actions seemed inexplicable: old people in wheelchairs - and I saw this first hand - were asked to get up and were searched more thoroughly than the rest of us. This delayed everyone.

I would have thought that this was exceptional, but for what Dinesh D'Souza, a speaker at the ‘Freedom Fest' conference I attended in Las Vegas, had told us: "checking old invalids thoroughly was typical behaviour of federal agents at airports". Though Dinesh was defending US actions he too was aghast at airport security spending time in intrusively searching old ladies, while an Al-Quaida member would probably get in with a cursory check. One of the hijackers who perished alongwith his victims on 9/11 was sent a visa renewal letter by the US immigration authorities - the press had revealed this much to the embarrassment of the US government.

George Bush had wanted private agencies handling the airport security. They would have done a better, faster job at half the cost. However this was shot down by the US Congress in favour of government employees doing the work. The airport at London was worse. We had to stand in a line for two hours to clear immigration. Their fast track service was closed. The immigration counters just did not have adequate staff. Incidentally, the customs officials were also absent.

Mercifully, both in the US and UK there were no immigration checks when departing. The queues we experience in Nepal and India while leaving, were absent in both these countries. The authorities there coordinate with the airlines who give the information regarding an alien's departure to the government. Why can't we in Nepal do the same? If immigration controls on entry cannot be dispensed with, why not end checking by authorities at departure? The airlines can verify passports at the time of check-in and pass on the departure information to the government. The manpower thus saved could be utilized to expand the number of manned immigration counters at TIA's arrival area thus minimizing delays.

Another positive for the visitor to the US and UK is their simple and short immigration forms. I especially love the UK form. It is a third of the size of the Nepal form, and does not even require you to enter your passport number, immigration officers just scan the passports presented to them. Nepal too should reduce immigration hurdles, install scanners, end checks at departure and change its arrival form with its plethora of unfriendly conditions which include requiring visitors to report to police stations. The UK arrival card has no conditions frightening those who enter it. Along with these measures, Nepal must privatize its airports, open its skies and improve security to encash on the opportunity presented by the boom in worldwide travel.