On Chinese New Year 2014, France introduced a new fast-track visa system for tourists from China, who can now receive their travel documents within 48 hours. This visa gives access to all 26 countries within the Schengen area – a region within Europe through which travellers can move freely without internal border checks.
If these same Chinese visitors want to visit Britain, they must pay £80 – on top of the £56 Schengen document, if they’re travelling on the Continent as well. What’s more, the wait for a British visa is officially five days, and according to some commenters it can take up to a fortnight.
It’s no surprise, then, that of the £6.7 billion spent overseas by Chinese tourists every year, only 4% gets spent in Britain, with a recent survey by deals website Travelzoo finding that few Chinese rate Britain as a must-see destination. France and Germany receive between five to seven times as many visitors from China as Britain does, and – judging by the new visa process – are actively wooing more.
The British government, meanwhile, are doing little to simplify the laborious visa system that many UK hoteliers and tourism industry bosses are blaming for huge loss of potential revenue. Despite promises made during a recent trade visit to China, chancellor George Osborne has shown reluctance to address what seems like an oversight to industry professionals. A small trial whereby travellers can apply for the £80 UK visa alongside their £56 Schengen visa has fallen fairly flat, probably because this process is only available via officially approved travel agents.
And plans for a fast-track service to be introduced later this year have been criticized due to it only being available to VIPs, and at an even higher cost than the already pricey 5 day visa.
The industry is at a loss, and many are expressing outrage, if not at France actively ‘poaching’ Chinese tourists, then at the UK government for its failure to do anything about it. Travelzoo CEO asserts that the UK is “missing out again and again” while the situation continues, while British Hospitality Association chief executive Ufi Ibrahim describes China’s overseas market as second only to America in terms of annual revenue, and insists that the UK visa system must grow more “competitive” if the country has any chance of cashing in.
Although Chinese tourists who do visit Britain are typically wealthy (presumably the less well-off ones are screened out by the prohibitively pricey visa) and spend more money than those who go elsewhere, industry bosses insist that the £300 million they do spend is not enough when compared to the overall market.
Perhaps it isn’t all because of the visa process – the relationship between China and Britain has historically been competitive, if not downright fraught, especially in terms of Hong Kong, which might also account for Britain being less popular. And England’s age-old feud with France might be contributing to the outrage; after all, introducing a better visa system does not mean they are “poaching” tourists – simply that their agenda is to prioritise tourism. Whereas Britain’s Tory agenda seems more about keeping the borders as tight as possible to appease far right voters. But it’s certainly true that, for whatever reason, Britain is dragging its heels on Chinese tourism, and tourism bosses aren’t happy about it…