The UK's new partnership with Belgium finally allows Schengen Area visa applicants to visit the UK without a separate visa. (Shutterstock)
After years of losing out on Europe’s Chinese tourism boom, the UK has made a significant step toward allowing full access to the UK from Chinese travelers. While its newly launched program only applies to applicants through Belgium for now, the move is a positive sign for retailers pushing the government to allow full access for all Schengen visa holders.
Last week, the UK announced that it is partnering with Belgium to allow Chinese travelers on a Belgium-issued Schengen visa to visit without applying for a separate UK visa. The visas can be obtained in either Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou, and will allow travelers to visit all 26 countries within the Schengen Area. The program starts on July 1 and allows applicants to apply and pay for their UK and Belgium visas with a single form.
The new policy is the biggest breakthrough in visa policy so far as luxury businesses have been pushing the government to allow Chinese tourists with Schengen visas to visit the UK without a separate visa for years. In October 2013, the government launched a pilot program to share application forms for the Schengen and UK visas and introduced a new 24-hour priority visa that cut down on the regular one-week wait wait time. In September 2014, the UK announced that it was launching a visa refund plan for Chinese tourists visiting in organized groups.
Despite extensive marketing efforts to reach Chinese tourists, the UK has been missing out on a great deal of potential revenue thanks to its cumbersome visa process. A total of 90 percent of Chinese tour groups who visit Europe skip the UK, according to the UK China Visa Alliance, an organization of businesses including luxury retailers and hoteliers that lobbies the British government for less restrictive visa policies.
According to experts, the Schengen agreement with Belgium is unlikely to have a dramatic impact on tourism numbers, since it’s only available for Chinese travelers who receive their Schengen visa through Belgium. The partnership may be more likely to benefit Belgium, which only issued 14,223 visas to Chinese tourists in the year 2013, compared to 291,919 for the UK. Andrew Murphy, the retail director at John Lewis and chair of the UK China Visa Alliance, told Financial Times that the step is still a major positive because “getting any Schengen country to agree to some co-operation is the critical point because this will allow us to trial the system.”
Nonetheless, the government’s previous efforts to improve visa policies do appear to have had an impact on Chinese visitor numbers. In 2012, the UK’s tourism office VisitBritain forecasted that Chinese visitor numbers would reach 290,000 annually by June 2020, but that number was already exceeded by June 2014, when the office reported that 390,000 visas had been issued to Chinese citizens in a one-year period, marking a 35 percent increase from the 2020 estimate. As a result, the new 2020 target for Chinese visitors is 650,000.
VisitBritain has been trying to make up for the cumbersome visa process with significant marketing to China. In March last year, it launched its Great China Welcome Program, which encourages British businesses to employ Mandarin-speaking staff, accept UnionPay credit cards, or offer a service tailored specifically to Chinese visitors. It has also focused on creating innovated social media campaigns, such as its February 2015 contest calling on web users to rename British landmarks in Mandarin. The contest received over 13,000 submissions for Chinese names for famous sites, and then allowed users to vote on their favorites. The winning names will be placed in Chinese on signage for the sites.
The UK has long held significant cachet with Chinese consumers, who love British brands such as Burberry. Trademark elements of British heritage including craftsmanship and history play especially well with Chinese consumers, and Chinese tourist spending the UK is projected to rise to £1.01 billion (about $1.7 billion) by 2017, making up 3.7 percent of total tourist revenue.
While the visa policy is a step in the right direction, the main breakthrough for the UK would be to reach a partnership with France or Italy, which remain top destinations in Europe for Chinese travelers and have reworked their own visa policies to grant easier access to Chinese travelers. The UK has long compared itself to France, another top shopping destination for Chinese travelers. France sees around 1.7 million Chinese visitors annually, with Chinese visitors spending 1,500 euros on average per visit.