Following protracted discussion and debate, this week the British Home Secretary announced changes to the UK visa system designed to encourage more Chinese visitors to the UK. Along with “a simplified, streamlined application process and dedicated Embassy staff to assist with UK applications,” the measures include an allowance for business travelers to keep hold of their passports while their visas are being processed. And though these changes to the visa policy do not yet address one of the biggest issues hampering greater Chinese tourism in the UK — the need to get separate visas for the UK and Ireland and Europe’s 25-nation Schengen zone — they could tackle other major gripes: time and inefficiency.
As the UK Border Agency points out, the new visa changes will be made over the next six months, and include:
Simplified Approved Destination Scheme (ADS) process: including shortened online application form and streamlined requirements for ADS customers.
Assistance for business: a business network has been established, with dedicated Embassy staff to assist businesses with their UK visa requirements.
Passport pass-back: a service for business travellers and ADS tourists which allows customers to keep their passport while their visa is being processed. This means they can travel or apply for another visa if they need to, reducing the time it takes to get two visas.
Visa training for agents: a new online visa training module for the Brit Agent network in China so they can better assist Chinese customers wanting to travel to the UK.
Convenient biometric capture: a mobile biometric service which will be available to applicants who wish to have their biometric information taken at a location more convenient to them, rather than visiting a visa application centre.
Priority visa eligibility: expanded to include Tier 4 students and those who have previously travelled within Schengen .
Improved application processes: improvements to the online application process (in April 2013) including the introduction of translated application forms.
An enhanced Select Business Scheme: the enhanced scheme will remove the onerous reporting requirements that have made it cumbersome and bureaucratic for many companies.
With the UK angling for more international tourism, and London high-end retailers hoping to siphon off some of the money otherwise being spent in Paris by wealthy Chinese travelers, changes to the visa policy can’t come soon enough. In 2010, only five percent of the 2.2 million Chinese visitors to Europe visited the UK, with France attracting nearly eight times as many visitors. British tourism and retail organizations estimate that the UK is losing out on some £1.2 billion (US$1.9 billion) a year from Chinese tourists who travel elsewhere due to visa red tape. As a report from VisitBritain recently pointed out, 61 percent of Chinese tourists who decided not to travel to the UK did so because they were frustrated by the visa process.
Among British retailers, the sense that they are failing to cash in on a key new demographic is palpable, considering the average expenditure of all tourists in the UK is £567 ($923) each yet Chinese visitors spend on average £1,688 ($2,748), according to the Heart of London Business Alliance. Though VisitBritain predicts a 113 percent total increase in the number of Chinese travelers (excluding Hong Kong) over the next eight years — owing more to the fact that outbound travel is growing as a whole — and expects the UK to bring in around 300,000 Chinese tourists by 2020, the fewer than 110,000 trips by Chinese tourists to the UK in 2011 is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than one million who visited Paris alone.