UK moves to streamline tourist visas for Chinese

Helen Warrell
Chinese tourists have their pictures taken outside Buckingham Palace in London, England.
Matthew Lloyd | Getty Images

Under pressure from Beijing to simplify its visa system, Britain has announced that Chinese tourists will be able to use the same website to apply for a British and a Schengen visa, which allows travel to almost all other EU countries.

But Home Secretary Theresa May's announcement did not include fresh measures to help business travelers, and all Chinese applicants for British visas will still have to visit a separate U.K. visa center in person to process biometric data.

Retailers and travel agencies have long warned that the UK's insistence on remaining outside the border-free Schengen area covering most of Europe meant Britain was missing the economic boost given to capitals such as Paris and Berlin by Chinese tourism.

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Around 90 per cent of Chinese tour groups who come to Europe omit Britain, resulting in £1.2 billion of lost revenue each year, according to research published by the U.K. China Visa Alliance on Monday. Chinese visitors spend 64 per cent more than the average overseas visitor.

The drawbacks of the current system were highlighted last week when China's ambassador to the U.K., Liu Xiaoming, told journalists that Britain had fallen behind France and Germany in Beijing's estimation, partly because of its burdensome visa regime.

"Visa restrictions are eroding Britain's strength," Mr Liu said, ahead of a visit by the Chinese premier this week. He added that UK efforts to tackle the problem to this point had been "far from enough".

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Business leaders hinted on Monday that they may have some sympathy with Mr Liu's analysis, especially as talks in Brussels about a "joint shop front" to streamline the website into one joint application for British and Schengen visas are still ongoing.

Andrew Murphy, retail director at John Lewis and chairman of the U.K. China Visa Alliance, described Home Office progress on the visa issue as "pretty rapid ... in relative terms".

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But he also admitted that there was still some way to go in alleviating the hurdles faced by Chinese applicants. "We don't think [the announcement] goes far enough because the full extent of what's advisable and sensible is to have those joint application centers," he said.

The most likely change is for the UK to start by negotiating a "one stop shop" for visas with the Italian government, which uses the same processing agent within China.

Despite having introduced some relaxation on tourist visas, the Home Office did not bring in any rule changes for business travelers beyond confirming that a 24-hour, "super priority" visa service announced last year would be in operation from August. The service will cost £600.

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Baroness Jo Valentine, head of the business lobby London First, credited the Home Office with "making the system better", but admitted that potential visitors were easily put off by hardline immigration rhetoric, such as discussion of net migration targets.

"In everything we do in China [we should be] making sure that we always have in the back of our minds the fact that we have to have a growing relationship with the country," she said. "So we just have to make sure that background policy doesn't convey the wrong impression to the people we actually want to do business with."