UK targets China's big spenders

Updated: 2012-10-11 01:19


Zhang Chunyan and Cecily Liu

(China Daily)

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Tourism chiefs using new initiatives to attract more wealthy visitors

Tourism chiefs in the United Kingdom are introducing new initiatives to attract high-spending Chinese tourists, including facilitating UK visas and organizing the largest-ever British tourism mission to China.

A new visa proposal involving the "dual processing" of British and Schengen applications — referring to the 26 European countries signed up to the Schengen visa agreement — was presented to the UK Border Agency on Monday.

A single Schengen visa covers parts of Eastern Europe and all 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 only have to submit one form and one set of documents in order to receive two visas, allowing them to visit the UK and parts of Europe on the same trip.

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

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

Tourism and retail bosses estimate that the UK misses out on 1.2 billion pounds ($1.9 billion) from wealthy Chinese visitors a year as a result of Britain's bureaucratic 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 said.

Research from VisitBritain, the national tourist body, indicates that 61 percent of Chinese people who chose not to come to Britain were put off by the difficulties of the visa process.

Carrick said 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".

She added: "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."

Stephen Boxall, managing director of The Ritz London, said: "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.

"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 procedures by the Home Office."

Proposal praised

Lai Tingting, in her 30s, from China's Yunnan province, said she is happy with the new proposal. "My mother paid a visit to 11 European countries, except the UK, because she needed to apply for a single British visa."

She added, "If it becomes easier, I hope to travel to both France and Britain next year."

A delegation of about dozens of retailers and leisure companies, ranging from Arsenal Football Club to Harrods and Selfridges department stores, will travel to Shanghai in November on Britain's tourism mission, to beckon more Chinese tourists to British shores.

Organized by VisitBritain, the trip will last three days, and is mainly structured around one-to-one meetings with individual tour operators and networking sessions. "We will be meeting many top Chinese tour operators and hopefully convince them to include Westfield as a stop in their tour packages," said Myf Ryan, UK marketing manager of the shopping center Westfield.

Although Westfield has already geared a considerable number of its marketing ideas toward Chinese residents and students in the UK, such as discount passes for VIP card holders and goodie bags for new students, Ryan said it is important to reach out to China's domestic market.

Selfridges also underlines the importance of conducting one-to-one meetings with tour operators in China.

"Consumers (in China) still rely heavily on agents and tour operators to book every part of their trip, from flights and accommodation to leisure activities," said a Selfridges spokesperson, adding that face-to-face meetings work best with Chinese tour operators.

"The face-to-face culture is very important in China, so conducting meetings in person is highly valued. Also, the effort to make the journey to China is appreciated and shows how serious a company is about doing business there," the spokes person added.

Like Westfield and Harrods, Selfridges also started to recruit more Chinese shop assistants and install China UnionPay terminals in recent years.

Despite these efforts, the road ahead is still bumpy.

Some industry insiders believe Carrick's views are too optimistic. "The changes being asked for are particularly significant ones," said Andrew Osborne, a partner at the UK law firm Lewis Silkin.

"The UK government wants to be assured that people coming here on tourist visas will eventually leave, but once they are in the UK it is difficult to monitor them. So it is easier to check people before they come to the UK," Osborne said.

The proposal would bring the UK's tourism visa policy closer to that of Schengen countries, which is a situation the British government has been trying to avoid. "The British government wants to maintain control of its own policies. They don't want to rely on other countries to control their borders," Osborne explained.

Experts noted that even if the plan is agreed, the new streamlined application process is likely to take months to introduce. In the meantime, tourism bodies say they want to see other improvements, such as forms that can be filled out in Chinese and speedier handling of applications.

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