Chinese Tourists Stymied By “Fortress” UK

France Receives 25-30 Percent More Chinese Visitors Than Great Britain

Harrods is a regular destination for Chinese tourists in London

The rising tide of Chinese outbound tourists may be washing over destinations like France and the United States, boosting retailers, hoteliers (and even realtors), but one market that has yet to fully capitalize on this important and growing demographic is the UK. Despite widespread interest — bordering on obsession among some urban Chinese — in Britain, a protracted back-and-forth over the country’s visa policy continues to limit Chinese entries. While culture secretary Jeremy Hunt advocates streamlining the visa process to take advantage of Chinese travelers’ notoriously free-spending behavior and narrow the gap with France (which currently receives an estimated 25-30 percent more Chinese visitors), home secretary Theresa May has blocked Hunt’s attempts, citing “a threat to national security.”

Though the UK tourism agency VisitBritain predicts a 113 percent total increase in the number of Chinese travelers (excluding Hong Kong) over the next eight years, 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.

As the Guardian notes this week:

The UK is high up in the list of places that the Chinese want to visit; lagging behind the US, the dreamland of opportunities, but often ahead of the rest of Europe. There is a sense of mystery about the UK: it’s often the images of England’s green parks, countryside and Victorian houses that people point to as an alternative to polluted, overcrowded cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou.

The capital is viewed as modern and dynamic, while being ingrained with history. When asked what other images are conjured up by the UK, the reply is often “the Queen, tea and Oxbridge”. This strong cultural identity is something the Chinese admire, particularly after much of its own was destroyed during the shambolic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

So what’s stopping them actually coming? Sebastian Wood, the British ambassador in Beijing, has described the UK as a “fortress”, and while this is perhaps an exaggeration, Britain does have a reputation as a country that is harder to access.

The main problem for Chinese tourists is a matter of logistics – the UK is not included in the Schengen visa, which allows access to a host of European countries such as France and Germany. What this means is that an entirely separate process is required to gain entry into the UK. Although an overhaul earlier this year means that visa applications are now completed online, visitors are still required to visit one of 12 UK centres across the country for a face-to-face interview and fingerprinting. If you don’t live near one of these centres already, you’d have to travel some distance to get there.

While the bureaucratic tug-of-war over the UK’s visa policy continues, in the wake of the London Olympics — during which Chinese visitors “took the gold” in spending — the British government recently announced a new £8 million (US$12.5 million) marketing campaign aimed at aspiring tourists in mainland China. The funds will be used to promote the British government’s four-year, global GREAT campaign. (Which, according to the program’s website, “centres on areas of British excellence focusing on reasons to invest in and visit the UK.”)

However, many remain skeptical whether Britain’s Chinese overtures will actually bear fruit. As Mary Rance, chief executive of the tourism trade association UKinbound, told China Daily last week, Britain’s ambitious plan to triple Chinese entries by 2015 will be difficult unless “grassroots issues about visa and air passenger duty” are dealt with, as well as the complexity and sluggishness of the UK visa application process. Said Rance, “[Jeremy] Hunt wasn’t clear how he’s going to attract three times the number of Chinese tourists. It’s an ambition, and not a target – which in business if you don’t deliver you have to account for it. If it’s an ambition, it’s not very much at all.”


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