Britain delivers visas pledge to woo Chinese tour groups

Updated: 2013-05-16 02:16

By CECILY LIU and ZHANG CHUNYAN in London and WANG ZHUOQIONG in Beijing (China Daily)

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The UK said on Wednesday it will work with Chinese tour operators to make the application process for a British visa easier for group visitors.

Immigration Minister Mark Harper said details of how to achieve this have yet to be decided.

"We would sit down with (Chinese tour operators) to say, 'How can we make this easier and more cost effective for you?'" Harper said.

The pledge came after Britain confirmed it will not incorporate its tourism visa application process for Chinese visitors with that for Schengen Area countries.

The Schengen Area is a group of 26 European countries that have abolished passport and immigration controls at their common borders. It functions as a single country for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy.

Harper said one aspect of the issue is to explore how to incorporate biometric scans needed to apply for British tourism visas with those of the Schengen Area.

He said one option could be for staff members at British visa processing centers to visit Chinese tour operators and collect the biometric details there.

"Or it might be possible to look at which companies Schengen countries are going to use to deliver biometrics, and it may be that we find the same companies deliver both services."

Harper said such an arrangement would require incorporating legislation and data protection requirements for Britain and the Schengen Area into one comprehensive system, which is hard to achieve. He said seeking cooperation from European governments would also be an issue.

Harper's response follows continued lobbying by British retail and hospitality groups to attract Chinese tourists, who claim the UK is losing them to Schengen countries, because it requires a separate visa.

They have suggested the possibility of setting up a process for Chinese tourists to make one joint application for UK and Schengen visas.

According to British government data, France currently receives 25 to 50 percent more Chinese tourists than Britain.

Julia Carrick, chief executive of Walpole, a consortium of luxury brands, said Chinese tour operators do not like making two separate applications for their customers to visit Britain and Schengen countries, and often exclude Britain from their package tours.

"We hope there will be a way to allow the British and Schengen visa application processes to work closer together, so that it's easier for Chinese visitors," she said.

Wang Xin, a 25-year-old in Beijing, decided to stop applying for a UK visa because it took so much time.

The spending power of Chinese visitors has risen sharply in recent years. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization report in April, Chinese travelers spent a record $102 billion on international tourism in 2012, a 40 percent rise from 2011.

"In 2005, China ranked seventh in international tourism expenditure, and has since successively overtaken Italy, Japan, France and the UK," the report stated.

Li Mengran, public relations specialist at Beijing UTour International Travel Service, said simplified visa procedures will increase the number of Chinese travelers to the UK.

Harper said his team is fully aware of the economic argument for attracting Chinese visitors to Britain, but stressed it is important to maintain the country's immigration controls.

In December, the UK introduced measures to make the visa application process easier for Chinese visitors.

One change is the introduction of a service for applicants who want to retain their passports while their British visa applications are still being processed, to enable them to apply for Schengen visas simultaneously. Another is the introduction of a mobile biometric service for business travelers.

Li said these measures have contributed to strong growth in Chinese visitors to the UK, based on the number of applications for group tourists through UTour.

But she added, "First-time Chinese visitors often consider it easier to travel to multiple destinations on the continent rather than to the UK as a single destination."

Harper said he hopes the changes made will provide incentives for operators to include Britain in their package tours. He said his team is explaining the changes to tour operators, to ensure they are fully understood.

"Britain has so much to offer in terms of our tourism opportunities, our history, our modernity, our creative industries and our shopping, and we have to make sure people want to come here," Harper said.

About 150,000 Chinese tourists visit the UK every year, but Britain wants to raise the number to 500,000 by 2015, former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt said in 2012.

According to the China Outbound Tourism Development 2013 report, released by the China Tourism Academy, the number of outbound visits exceeded 83.18 million in 2012, and is expected to reach 94.3 million this year, a year-on-year increase of 15 percent.

Overseas spending by Chinese tourists is forecast to hit a record $117.6 billion this year. In 2012, the UK Home Office received 296,795 visa applications from Chinese nationals worldwide.

Wang Wen contributed to this story.