Chinese whispers of the printing type - The Noel D'Cunha Sunday Column

At least 1,000 members of the printing and packaging industry, who were to travel to Shanghai for the All in Print expo, were left stranded across the country on 30 October.

While the reason for the last-minute cancellations is still not clear, the printers are reeling from a dual loss – the amount spent on via and airfare and the opportunity to attend the exhibition.

A report…

04 Nov 2023 | By Noel D'Cunha

In a development which is an embarrassment to the Indian print and packaging industry, besides inconveniencing hundreds of business travellers due to the last minute cancellations, Indian immigration officials in airports across major cities in India reportedly refused nearly 1,000 Indian print firm CEOs and packaging converters to board their flights to China. The Indian print and packaging fraternity was on the way to China to participate in the All In Print exhibition in Shanghai, which is scheduled from 1-4 November 2023.

PrintWeek has information that Indian travellers with group visas, from across the country, except Hyderabad, could not board their flight to China on 30 October 2023.

While the exact reason for the unprecedented turn of events is still not clear, printers stranded for agonising hours at airports across the country told PrintWeek that the incident has resulted in a collective loss of nearly Rs nine-crore, including cost for visa applications, airline tickets and other expenses for 1,000 people. 

Prof Kamal Chopra, chairman of World Print and Communication Forum and managing director, Foil Printers, Ludhiana; and Sahil Rao of Unbox, Pune were among those who were denied entry.

Rao said, “On the 30 October morning, one of the members travelling with a different group to China informed us that upon arrival at the Mumbai immigration counter, he was asked to step aside despite having checked in his luggage. He was eventually directed to a separate room along with his fellow passengers. It was conveyed that they would be unable to board the flight due to their paper visas.”

According to reports received from sources, the airline staff attempted to intervene, but the immigration officials cited orders from higher authorities and were unable to grant permission for the travellers to proceed. As a result, the printers’ groups were asked to leave the airport.

“It is a pity that many printers were not allowed to travel on group visas to China, though there is no notification/circular available on the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) website, but it is a fact that many printers flying from various airports were denied exit by the immigration authorities on the ground that they are not eligible to travel on Group visa,” said Chopra, who was boarding the flight from New Delhi international airport.

Was there an abrupt shift in the policy for travel to China that left hundreds of print and packaging firm representatives stranded at the airports?

Rao, stranded on the 30 October night, decided to dig deeper to find out the reasons for the China fiasco, and he said, it seemed to. “There may have been recent changes in visa policies, possibly related to an ongoing border dispute. Many of the affected travellers tried to obtain additional visas to Hong Kong and then travel to China, but this alternative did not work out. Our tour operator, who has been facilitating paper visas for passengers for over 15 years, also expressed shock at this unprecedented situation.”

Chopra, who has lodged a complaint with the MHA under registration number MEAPD/E/2023/0009199, said he enquired with an unnamed concerned person, who clarified that there are no instructions with reference to not allowing travel on a group visa. “I hope to get a written reply to my grievances.”

Raju Kutty of Purandhara Laser Technologies, Kochi, had a stamped visa on his passport, and so did Trigon’s Milind Deshpande. Both were able to board the flight. Strangely, one group of 28 printers were allowed to fly from Hyderabad on a group visa on 31 October 2023, informed Chopra.

Kutty said a group tourist visa costs about Rs 5,000 while an individual business visa costs Rs 15,000. “This, coupled with the geopolitical situation, could be the reason.” Kutty added, “I am visiting China on another project. I have a properly stamped visa, which I had applied for with letters of invitation from the companies, bank statements, IT Records, and the works. This is similar to a Schengen visa."

Kutty, however, informed that none of the Chinese companies he visited were able to visit India. “Visas are rejected.”

Chopra raised a pertinent question, calling the treatment meted out to printers – harassment and nothing else. “If travelling on a group visa is not allowed, the government must have issued public notification beforehand, at the same time, how the delegation from Hyderabad airport was allowed whereas, at the same time on the same day, groups leaving from IGI Delhi were not allowed to travel on a group visa. How there can be different rules for different airports, I fail to understand.”

Rao said the unfortunate part was that the authorities could not provide any written explanation of the new policies. “The situation seems to have evolved overnight, leaving many unanswered questions,” he added.

PrintWeek spoke to Mithun Bhayani who is the director of Focus Exhibition and Leisure Tours. He said, “International travel is not the same as before. There are a lot of technical hitches that have come after Covid.” he added, “A majority of people look only at the price and want to risk their entire travel by booking with in-experienced team handling their business travel.”

For this purpose, Focus Exhibition and Leisure Tours had planned a stamp visa two months ago since the team was predicting such a situation. Bhayani said, “Currently, we have 54 delegates in Shanghai with our tour manager.”

A senior print CEO said, “There has been an attempt to cut corners and seek the cheapest option. The problem is that many print associations have partnered with these tour operators for the tour to the All In Print exhibition in Shanghai. And so, the onus is on the print associations, too. With Drupa in a few months, this is a warning to print association committees to select A-List vendors and not only base decisions on the cheapest vendor.”

Plan your trip abroad ahead of time: Tushar Dhote

Tushar Dhote of AIFMP feels while fingers have been pointed at tour operators for this fiasco, the printers must also accept their share of the blame. 

“The real problem is we, the printers, wake up late and rush to the embassy at the last possible moment. And when the embassy receives too many visa applications for the same destination to attend the same event, they issue Group Visas.”

On 30 October, Indian travellers with group visas from across the country, except Hyderabad, were boarding on China-bound flights.

Dhote said obtaining a group visa is a common practice that has been followed for more than a decade, and there is nothing illegal about it. 

On 30 October, a sudden decision was taken to deny the Immigration to China Paper Visa. The information was neither available with tour operators nor was seen on the Bureau of Immigration website.

Dhote said, “It shows how we have to bow down helplessly to our system and cannot do anything about it.” 

He said a lot of people in his contact who planned their tour to China on their own and are from big printing firms were also denied business visa on the pretext that the invitation letter was incorrect or was not stamped. 

“I know printers who paid a huge amount to get an appointment and then get an urgent Visa again costing a good sum,” he said.

Dhote said a tour to an exhibition overseas needs to be planned much ahead of time, so that one can get the documentation properly collated along with a proper invitation letter, airline tickets, hotel booking, vouchers, etc. This should save time and last-minute suspense. 

Drupa 2024 is just 200 days away, and it takes one to two months to get a Visa appointment from the German Embassy.

Dhote’s advice was to find a good travel operator who also has good access to hotels not far from the Duesseldorf Fairgrounds. “He should be able to provide good logistics services, clubbed with Indian dinners in the comfort of the hotel, if possible, as many of our friends are non-vegetarian Jains,” he said.

He added, “Most important are the flights, which should reach well in time to get a good amount of rest before we begin our exploration at the exhibition grounds.”

Dhote said this time, the Drupa fair ticket will not be valid for travelling free on other modes of transportation. So hotels near Hauptbahnhof will be a luxurious proposal.

He concluded, “I, too, am a victim of this debacle, and my only learning is to be cautious and educate myself on the happenings around us so that we do not end in a similar situation again.”