In a keynote speech on immigration to the Policy Exchange think tank in London, May confirmed the importance of China as a priority growth market for tourism with the announcement of a package of further enhancements to the UK visa service.
“We want to make sure that people in emerging markets continue to see Britain as a place to visit and do business,” she said. “That’s why we’ve made it easier for Chinese visitors to come here, by simplifying documentation requirements, establishing a new business network across China, extending our express visa service, and introducing a new passport pass-back scheme for visa applicants.”
- Visa training for agents: a new online visa training module for the Brit Agent network in China so they can better assist Chinese customers wanting to travel to the UK.
- Improved application processes: improvements to the online application process (in April 2013) including the introduction of translated application forms.
- Passport pass-back: a service for business travellers and ADS tourists which allows customers to keep their passport while their visa is being processed. This means they can travel or apply for another visa if they need to, reducing the time it takes to get two visas.
- Convenient biometric capture: a mobile biometric service which will be available to applicants who wish to have their biometric information taken at a location more convenient to them, rather than visiting a visa application centre.
- Priority visa eligibility: expanded to include Tier 4 students and those who have previously travelled within Schengen .
With 149,000 visits from China last year (a rise of about 35% from 2010), and Chinese visitors spend around three times as much as other visitors in the UK, national tourist board VisitBritain says that anything that can be done to attract more Chinese tourists will be a welcome boost for the economy.
VisitBritain’s director of strategy & communication Patricia Yates said: “The introduction of shorter and translated application forms as well as reduce documentary requirements is extremely welcome as these were identified by VisitBritain as areas where the UK could improve its visa service to out-compete those of the Schengen member states, as well as Australia and the USA.
“In addition, we are pleased to support UKBA’s efforts by adding a visa module to our BritAgent programme, which provides training to tour operators and travel agents in China.
“China is a key growth market for international tourism and a market in which Britain needs to compete effectively to ensure that we continue to be in the top 10 of tourism destinations. Improvements in the visa process will support our ambition to attract 40 million visitors a year by 2020 and we have been working closely with UKBA to inform their thinking.”
Meanwhile, Grant Hearn, chief executive of budget hotel chain Travelodge, agrees that May’s announcement comes as ‘great news for our industry and the British economy’.
“We have been working very hard alongside the BHA for a change to simplify the UK visa process, especially for new emerging markets,” said Hearn. “The initiatives introduced today will play a significant part in helping our economy recover, whilst creating new jobs, boosting growth and helping put Great Britain back on the world-wide tourist map.
“We are especially pleased that the world’s fastest growing tourism market, China, has been acknowledged as part of the new plans. Simplifying the visa system shows that the UK is open for business and means we can now confidently compete with our European neighbours by attracting a vast tourist market with huge spending power.
“This will undoubtedly create new employment opportunities in the UK."
VisitBritain hopes to attract almost 400,000 visits from Chinese tourists next year, to catch up with European rivals France and Germany.