June 10, 2016 5:00 am JST

Visa fees headed skyward -- but not in Japan

NATSUKI KANEKO, Nikkei staff writer

Japan has held the line on visa fees even with the surge in visitors from abroad.

TOKYO -- Even as Western countries raise visa fees to address rising application volumes and to fund enhanced screening for terrorists, Japan is dragging its feet amid a campaign to lure more foreign tourists.

The U.K. was the first to act. Home Secretary Theresa May proposed in 2015 to raise processing fees as a means of bringing the government more revenue. But some, including Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, thought that this could discourage tourists and students. The fees nonetheless went up this past March 18, with visit and work visas costing 2% more. A foreigner applying for a three-year work visa must now hand over a total of 575 pounds ($831), up 11 pounds. Settlement and residence fees jumped 25%.

European countries have been pushed to strengthen screenings by such terrorist attacks as the March bombings in Brussels. Many expect visa applicants, rather than taxpayers, to shoulder the costs of new management systems, information technology equipment and labor.

The U.S. proposed in May an average 21% hike in filing fees to deal with the surge in tourist and immigrant visa applications. Citizenship and Immigration Services says it faces an annual shortfall of $560 million at the current fees.

Applying for an H-1B skilled-employment visa would cost 42% more, or $460, under the new plan. India calls the hike "discriminatory," as many of the country's engineers work in the U.S. under H-1B. The issue could even set off an international dispute.

But Japan has charged the same 3,000 yen ($28.16) or so for a standard single-entry visa since 2007. This is quite low compared with Western countries, despite a relatively strict application process involving extensive documentation. In addition, the fee is collected only after the visa has been approved. Western countries charge for the application process itself, regardless of the outcome.

Foreign visitors to Japan increased 47% on the year to 19.73 million in 2015. The government has designated tourism a pillar of growth and targets 40 million visitors in 2020. There will likely be a continued surge in tourists from China, India, Vietnam and other countries not part of Japan's visa waiver program.

The outsourcing solution

"We're trying to manage applications at the embassy and consulates in China, but we don't have enough people, and we're just up to our ears," said a source in the Japanese foreign ministry's Consular Affairs Bureau. Expanding the staff by raising visa fees is a tough sell, especially amid government efforts to attract even more tourists.

Japan is looking into outsourcing as a last resort. The U.K. and Canada contract out data entry and other administrative work to the private sector, enabling government personnel to focus on reviewing applications.

Applicants would pay extra but enjoy such perks as submitting applications on weekends and holidays, when embassies and consulates are closed. It is also common in the West to expedite applications for an added fee.

The West sees the visa application process as a service, collecting the amount needed to cover expenses. It is only a matter of time before the Japanese system buckles under growing pressure. Government agencies must also adapt if Japan wants to truly uplift its tourism sector.

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