VISA WARS

The Moroccan Embassy in South Africa earlier this year incurred the wrath of some of the country’s visa companies when it appointed one of their competitors, MDS VisaPak, as its sole lodgement centre on a three-month trial basis. Kate Kennedy went to investigate.

2227

The notice was issued as follows:

“The Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco in Pretoria, South Africa, is pleased to announce the opening of a Visa Application Centre operated by MDS VisaPak. As of March 1st 2016, visa applications for Morocco will be directed to MDS VisaPak. The visa applications are to be submitted either at MDS VisaPak branches in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban or Port Elizabeth.”

Cue outrage from MDS VisaPak’s competitors.

“We were advised of the change on 26 February via a flyer handed outat the embassy to our couriers who were delivering and collecting passports on behalf of our customers,” says Debbie Nicholson, Managing Member of Visas &Passports Unlimited.“The changeover happened less than a week later.”

Jaendre Terblanche, owner of Visas Zone, was first alerted to the change by a client who was receiving correspondence from MDSVisaPak. A pamphlet from the embassy arrived later.

The news of the appointment came as a shock to Quentin van den Berg, owner of Visas Direct, but “MDS has always aspired to grow its business beyond being a visa centre,” he says.

Lodgement vs Service Centre

A visa lodgement or submission centre is where prospective travellers start the visas process for those embassies that don’t deal directly with the public. The lodgement centre will help to fill out the paperwork, gather the necessary documentation and deliver the application to the relevant embassy. The embassy will process the application, issue the visa and return the passports to the lodgement centre.

Many lodgement centres will specialise in focusing on one country or area. Capago, for instance, only deals with visas for Italy and France. VFS is one of the larger lodgement centres in South Africa. It has dealings with Home Affairs and handles Schengen visas and other areas. Each of its offices specialise in one main area, meaning a visa company will have to visit different offices for different visas.

“In the case of a Schengen visa application, where biometric data is required from applicants, these lodgement centres have undergone strict vetting and training,” says Debbie Nicholson, Managing Member of Visas &Passports Unlimited. “Biometric data is not something to be taken lightly and security is of paramount importance.”

MDS VisaPak is a visa facilitator in South Africa, with offices in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. They assist travellers in applying for visas for worldwide travel and charge for their services. They help to streamline the application process, being a single point of contact for all a client’s visa needs. Clients with an account are billed for the services rendered, as opposed to being required to pay upfront.

It is the same service offered by Visas & Passports Unlimited, Visas Direct, Visas on Demand and a long list of other companies.

The Concern

“MDS is our direct competition, and now, to get my clients’ visas to visit Morocco, I have to send paperwork, passports and staff directly to my competition,” says Nicholson.“Even if I can overlook this, I still have to pay MDS to process the application,” says Nicholson. “So my client is subject to Visas Unlimited’s fees as well as fees to MDS. It’s a very unfair practice.”

It’s a concern that Terblanche shares.

“Nothing stops MDS from approaching my clients once they have information supplied in the application documents,” he says. “I’m required to pay MDS a service fee to have them simply take the application to the embassy. Yet Visas Zone still has to check the application and make sure everything is in order before we hand it over. It’s virtually impossible to tell if we’re being overcharged, or charged incorrectly.”

An increase in cost seems to be one of the major issues.

“I don’t think the embassy realises how much money it will lose from potential visitors,” says Robert Ramsden, Marketing Manager at Visas International.

Prices listed on MDS’s website in mid-May for a Moroccan visa were as follows: R372 ($23.4) for a single entry and R556 ($35) for a multiple entry visa. This excludes the MDS service fee of R350 (ex VAT), and all of these prices are subject to change without notice.

“I’ve heard of people living in Pretoria, close enough to apply in person at the Moroccan embassy, who are really upset that they now have to go through a lodgement centre and pay a fee for an unwanted service,” says Ramsden.

He also relates a story of a group of travellers cruising the Mediterranean who, when they heard what they would have to pay for a visa to disembark the cruise liner, decided to stay on board when the ship docked in Morocco.

There’s also concern regarding the background to the appointment of MDS VisaPak.

“I’m very curious as to why the business wasn’t open for tender to other visa companies,” says Nicholson.

“My first thought was that no tender information was ever handed to the public or visa courier companies,” says Terblanche.

“How did MDS get its foot in this door?” asks Ramsden.

It’s a question that will likely never be answered. Despite numerous attempts to obtain comment from MDS VisaPak and the Moroccan Embassy, Business Traveller Africa was unsuccessful. In fact, both parties declined to comment, saying they weren’t prepared to talk on the record about the issue.

“The Moroccan embassy has not been willing to meet with visa companies,” says Van den Berg. “Communication from them is terrible and the diplomatic relationship is non-existent.”

“When I queried this move with the Department of International Relations and Co-operation in Pretoria, I was told that appointing a lodgement centre without opening the business up for tender is within the embassy’s rights and that it wasn’t within DIRCO’s jurisdiction to intervene,” says Nicholson.

It seemingly boils down to a threat to healthy competition.

“This move opens the way to eliminate competition,” says Nicholson. “MDS has access to all of my clients’ information, not to mention the client info from every other visa company in South Africa, and nothing is stopping them from wooing business away from all of us.”

In talks with MDS VisaPak, his former employer, Van den Berg was informed that if the appointment was made permanent, MDS had plans to open a separate lodgement division.

“If they trade under a lodgement centre name as opposed to a visa company name, I have no issues with the appointment,” he says.

The trial period ended on 31 May and at the time of going to print there was no update regarding the possible extension of the contract.

SHARE
Previous article4 HOURS IN… DURBAN
Next articlePoised for Growth