UK targets Chinese tourists

Updated: 2012-10-19 10:40

By Zhang Chunyan and Cecily Liu (China Daily)

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 UK targets Chinese tourists

Chinese tourists look at shoes displayed in Clarks Museum at Clarks Village in Street Somerset, England. The British government is discussing whether it is possible to allow Chinese tourists to get both Schengen and UK visas with just one application to facilitate their travel to the country. Matt Cardy / Getty Images via CFP

Changes to visa system possible as visitors could prove boon to economy

High-spending Chinese tourists have become an increasingly welcome sight on Europe's streets, as the continent struggles through its deepest recession in more than half a century.

Every country wants to capitalize on this growing group of travelers, including the United Kingdom, which has arranged a tourism mission to China and is looking at changes to its visa system to make entry easier for Chinese tourists.

A proposal to allow dual processing of British and Schengen visas was presented to the UK Border Agency on Oct 8. The Schengen area includes 26 European countries that are signed up to a dual visa agreement. A single Schengen visa covers parts of Eastern Europe and most of Western Europe, including France and Germany. Britain has so far refused to join the Schengen system due to national security concerns.

Under the terms of the proposal, Chinese applicants will be able to submit just one application and set of documents to obtain both a Schengen and UK visa.

Walpole, a consortium of luxury brands, and the New West End Company, which represents top London stores, met the border agency recently to discuss the issue.

"The new visa plan is very necessary. The applications will still be processed twice, ensuring that the UK border regime remains strong, but two visas will be issued at the same time," Julia Carrick, chief executive of Walpole British Luxury, says.

Tourism and retail bosses estimate that the UK misses out on 1.2 billion pounds ($1.9 billion; 1.4 billion euros) from wealthy Chinese visitors a year as a result of its rigid system.

"France currently attracts eight times more Chinese visitors than the UK. Harmonizing the visa system should lead to the UK performing as well as France," Carrick says.

Research from VisitBritain, the UK's national tourist body, indicates that 61 percent of Chinese people who chose not to visit Britain were put off by the country's difficult visa process.

If the plan is not introduced, "Britain will still welcome increasing numbers of Chinese visitors because of the growing numbers of Chinese travelers. But we will continue to underperform compared with other major European countries," Carrick says. "We understand that the UK Border Agency agrees with the principle of moving to a more harmonized system for visa applications. The issue will be about the practicalities of introducing such a system and the time frame for doing so."

The visa proposal comes as the UK is going through a slow and difficult healing process as it rebalances its economy. The International Monetary Fund says it now expects the UK economy to shrink by 0.4 percent this year.

According to the latest VisitBritain report, tourism accounts for about 9 percent of the country's GDP and jobs and is the third-largest foreign-exchange earner, behind chemicals and financial services.

Tourism can deliver jobs across the country for all skill levels quickly, as well as providing much-needed growth in the economy. A new job can be created for every 40,000 pounds spent by foreign visitors, according to the report.

VisitBritain revealed ambitious plans in October to increase inbound visitor numbers to 40 million per annum by 2020. This increase would represent a 3 percent rise in visitor numbers every year and would deliver an additional 8.7 billion pounds of foreign exchange earnings based on current prices. The additional visitors would also help support an extra 200,000 jobs.

"Should the Home Office wisely revise the current legislation regarding UK visas to streamline the process by which Chinese passport holders are able to travel to the UK, we would expect to see a significant uplift in revenue, both in the hospitality industry and across all retail industries," Stephen Boxall, managing director of The Ritz London, says.

"As the first hotel in the UK to install China UnionPay terminals and launch a series of bespoke amenities for our Chinese guests, at The Ritz we have long understood the importance of this market to British tourism and unreservedly endorse the proposed revision to visa procedures by the Home Office."

This summer, former British culture secretary Jeremy Hunt launched an 8-million-pound publicity blitz aimed at trebling the number of Chinese visitors to Britain