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Calgary misses out on hosting major international conference due to visa processing delays

Organizers with the International Health Economics Association (IHEA) cancelled plans to have Calgary host their next global congress over worries Ottawa couldn’t process hundreds of attendees’ visas in time for the July 2025 event.

It was to be hosted at the University of Calgary campus.

Instead, they moved their biennial conference to Indonesia because they say the system there is quicker and easier, providing visas upon arrival.

The head of the IHEA says that means Calgary businesses won’t get a chance to benefit from the potential economic spinoffs.

“The economic cost to, you know, to Calgary is enormous, right?” said Kara Hanson, IHEA president and professor of health economics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

a man in a dark suit speaks at a microphone
University of Calgary economics professor Aidan Holis says he and others have worked on the event for more than a year. (Submitted by the University of Calgary)

“You’ve got your 1,500 people who were all going to stay in hotels and eat out in restaurants and, I don’t know, maybe go to the Stampede, maybe have their holidays attached to this as well,” Hanson added.

One of the Calgary organizers, University of Calgary economics professor Aidan Hollis, says he and others have worked on this event for more than a year — in collaboration with the University of Calgary, the Institute of Health Economics and Tourism Calgary — before finding out earlier this month it was being moved.

“It’s certainly frustrating. I think the university has lots to offer (and it ) would have been great for our students,” said Hollis.

Federal minister aware

The head of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Deborah Yedlin, says the visa processing issue was raised with federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller during his visit to Calgary earlier this month for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference.

Yedlin says these delays are affecting international students and tourists as well as conferences.

And she says the problem needs to be sorted out soon because Calgary is set to host up to 20,000 people from all over the world for the 2025 Rotary International Convention. And she says hotels are already filling up.

A woman wearing a headset sits in a white chair surrounded by a black background.
Kara Hanson, the head of the International Health Economics Association, says they had to pull a global conference from Calgary due to delays in visa processing for attendees. (Submitted by Kara Hanson)

“This is something we actually need to turn our minds to,” said Yedlin.

“Because to have this happen again would be a really bad outcome for Calgary and for Canada,” she added.

Need expedited process

Hanson says 500 to 600 of the roughly 1,500 expected delegates from around the world needed a visitor visa to attend the five-day, scientific and policy based conference next year. 

And even though the event is still more than a year away, Hanson says delegates are notified they’ve been accepted only a few months prior to the event based on the their most recent research.

So she says that wouldn’t be enough time according to the estimated visa processing times listed on the Canadian government’s website. It lists waits as long as 10 months for some countries in Africa. 

Hollis says he had been working with the special events department at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) but was told they couldn’t expedite the process.

Hollis says he understands the need for scrutiny with respect to processing visa applications, but he says the federal government needs to be able to do so in a timely manner for conferences.

“It doesn’t actually take a year to do visa processing,” said Hollis.

IRCC response

In a statement from IRCC, a spokesperson says it’s “committed to supporting organizers who chose Canada as a destination to host their international events by making the visa application process as easy and efficient as possible.”

It recommends organizers register their event with the IRCC to “receive information on Canada’s visa and entry requirements, along with personalized services to make sure they have the resources and the support they need to plan their event.”

It says it’s helped register more than 400 events this year — up from 250 last year — through its special events services.

And it says it’s continuing its work to reduce wait times by hiring new processing staff in 2022, digitizing applications and implementing technology-based solutions such as digital intake and advanced analytics.

Hanson says international organizations are now considering visa procedures more carefully as they move forward because delays and processing issues are not isolated to Canada. 

“It’s just very high risk to hold them in such places because it really threatens the internationalism of the event, you end up only attracting those who know they can get in, and that really undermines the conversations that can take place,” said Hanson.

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