Three months after the borders have opened, lag times for visa processing are still making headaches for travellers to New Zealand
A high demand for entry into New Zealand was a reasonable expectation following years of sustained border closures, separated families and worker shortages in key industries.
It’s something the tourism industry was banking on after the unprecedented drought of the early Covid years.
Immigration New Zealand, the government agency with its hand on the visa levers, also anticipated the relative flood of prospective travellers, instituting a new specialised team in late August to speed up the processing time of visas.
But despite the Reconnecting New Zealand incident management team co-ordinating a response to cut down the time potential travellers spend in the visa queue, travel agents say wait times remain high and communication with applicants are sorely lacking.
Immigration New Zealand says it aims to process visitor visa applications within 20 business days, and on average it manages to process these applications in even less than that – within 13 business days.
Ten percent of applications, however, take longer than 44 business days, or around two months.
Travel agent Lianne Powell said trying to get a visitor visa for her father to come in from South Africa was a long process without much communication from the agency.
She first applied for her father’s visa in early August, with the hope that he could enter the country by early November, when a family member was able to escort him on the long plane voyage.
But despite netting hour after hour on the phone to immigration’s call centre and being told the application was being escalated, she and her family spent weeks in limbo unsure of the man’s visa status.
“We were getting nowhere,” she said. “The call centre couldn’t seem to do anything.”
Although the visa was finally granted towards the end of October, Powell said some easy enough fixes to the paths of communication would make people affected by visa waits much more amenable.
“The communication was not very user-friendly at all,” she said. The only support contact she could find was a phone number leading to a call centre, after a three-hour wait listening to execrable hold music.
And without even the luxury of a robotic voice reporting where she stood in the line, it felt like it could have gone on forever.
“That’s what I found the hardest,” she said.
She did this three times in the course of trying to sort out a single visa.
Powell said a support email like the one Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment used back with the MIQ system could work wonders.
Accusations of communication breakdowns and a lack of transparency echo the calls made by the Productivity Commission, following an inquiry into immigration settings earlier this year. The commission made a series of 24 recommendations aimed at moving New Zealand’s immigration policy from reactive and short-term to a longer-term approach, and emphasised that the agency should not be making its decisions behind closed doors.
Immigration’s border and visa operations general manager Nicola Hogg said many of the visa applications received in early August were complicated and required further checks, lengthening the amount of time the application spent in the bureaucratic machine.
Early August was the first time the borders had been properly open since March of 2020, meaning a hefty backlog of would-be travellers were ready to get their visa applications in, placing immense pressures on a government arm that may have lost the visa-processing momentum it had achieved prior to the pandemic.
“Since reopening our borders, there has been high demand for skilled workers for New Zealand businesses, along with strong interest from people to come to visit or reconnect with friends and family in New Zealand,” Hogg said, which has resulted in a surge in visa applications – especially for visitor visas.
The demand for visitor visas ended up being higher than immigration had forecasted, Hogg said, which lead to longer lead times on the processing.
The Government had already suggested numbers were likely to be high, with surveys in January saying 77 percent of Americans who wanted to visit New Zealand wanted to come within the first six months of the border opening, and 58 percent of Australians in the same category, according to research by Tourism New Zealand.
Hogg said getting to those early August applications was still a work in progress in some cases, with the agency making moves to try and speed up the process for everybody involved.
“With measures to streamline visitor visa processing overall, we’re redirecting resources and putting initiatives in place to speed up and focus on these older applications,” she said.
It seems one of the main initiatives they’ve rolled out in response to the disquiet of awaiting applicants is the incident management team.
Hogg said teams like this are in regular use by immigration’s over-arching ministry.
“MBIE regularly uses the incident management team model to leverage its scale of resources, strengthen connections across the business, and follow a co-ordinated response model to ensure we deliver effective solutions,” she said.
The team has been leveraging immigration’s recent shift to a new online platform, increasing the automation of some tasks, streamlining visa processes and freeing up additional resources, all with the end goal of making the immigration machine run more smoothly.
“Visitor visas has been and remains a key area of focus, and while we have improved processing rates, we acknowledge that some people have been waiting longer than they expected,” she said. “We remain committed to improving processing times for visitor visas. We continue to develop and implement measures to achieve this and to manage the ongoing high demand.”
But despite the team focusing on this, it seems the visitor visa wait times have still slightly increased.
On October 25, 90 percent of applications were completed within 39 business days, but now by the early days of November, that number has increased to 44 business days, based on applications decided in the four weeks before October 27.
As applications have only recently opened, immigration warns these times are likely to change frequently as more visa applications are decided.
“Our processing times are based on applications we have decided, so don’t include applications being processed,” Hogg said. “As many categories, including visitor visas, have only recently reopened, these times will change as more visa applications are decided.”