A range of low-cost measures could be adopted by the Government to make it easier for Chinese citizens to visit Britain, boosting tourism and economic spend in the UK, according to business leaders.
The suggestions, which come following an attack on Britain’s strict visa rules from industry chiefs including BA boss Willie Walsh, include shortening the lengthy visa application form, reducing costs and creating an approved bank of Chinese “regular visitors” that could come and go freely to reduce paperwork.
Last week, Mr Walsh and other business leaders including Nick Varney, of Merlin Entertainments, which owns the London Dungeon, and Grant Hearn, of Travelodge, warned thousands of Chinese tourists were put off from visiting Britain and spending money in high street shops and tourist attractions because of burdensome visa entry requirements.
Under the rules, a Chinese citizen wishing to visit the UK has to fill an application form, up to nine pages long and visit an immigration authority. They also pay around £20 more on average to visit Britain compared to a European country in the so-called Schengen area, which includes France and Italy.
The Government made changes to the system last December, including plans to translate the form into Chinese from April, but the business chiefs have urged the Home Office to do more.
One global company headquartered in the UK, which employs several Chinese and Indian highly-skilled workers, said: “From a tourism perspective, it’s a paper-heavy process to visit the UK. Practically, it’s easier for a business to have its European HQ in Germany or France, in the Schengen area, where staff can travel across many borders.”
The business said the easiest solution would be for Britain to enter the Schengen area, but recognised this was a “political matter”.
Mr Varney said: “If we’re not going to sign up to be part of Schengen – critics would say we’d be too lax on immigration – we need to make the UK visa cost half the cost of Schengen. We need to follow as much of the Schengen system as much as possible; such as its four-page application form and no need to visit immigration authorities in person.”
Ben Elliot, co-founder of Quintessentially Lifestyle, a private members’ club, said UK trade officials should go to China more and “bang the drum” for coming to Britain. “We need a PR exercise. Following the Olympics and Diamond Jubilee year, we need to seize the opportunity.”
He added: “We could create a preapproved bank of Chinese visitors that can come to Britain freely without the need to fill in forms each time.”
The Home Office said it was committed to making the visa service as quick and convenient as possible. Under “visit visa” rules, Chinese nationals can come and go within a six-month period, a spokesman said.