The boss of Harrods has hit out at ministers for “disregarding” the economic benefits of relaxing visa rules for Chinese and other emerging market visitors to score cheap “political points” on immigration.
Michael Ward, managing director of the prestigious London store, said both the Conservatives and Labour are too frightened about immigration scare stories and are ignoring the business opportunities offered by welcoming more visitors from China, and other fast-growth economies such as Brazil, to these shores.
He said other countries in Europe have better understood the balance between stimulating their economies and immigration by joining the Schengen visa system, which allows Chinese tourists to visit 26 countries in the EU.
Chinese tourists who want to come to the UK have to fill out a separate application form, get their finger prints taken and pay a higher fee than for a multi-country Schengen visa.
Mr Ward also raised concerns about plans announced by shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper this week about a crackdown on short-term student visas.
Students from fast growth economies such as China are among some of Harrods’ higher spending customers, the retail boss said.
“You have got both parties playing political football,” Mr Ward said.
“Student visas, if properly applied, are a huge source of income to the UK.
“Interestingly we have got a very large number of high spending customers who are students because they are sponsored by their parents. They are worth a significant amount to the UK economy.”
Mr Ward questioned why Chinese tourists have to fill out labour-intensive applications to come to the UK when their country is on track to overtake the US as the world’s biggest economy before the end of the decade.
US citizens visiting the UK for a short stay of up to six months generally aren’t required to obtain a visa.
“How can we start in today’s world differentiating between an American citizen and a Chinese citizen?” Mr Ward said.
“The Chinese will soon be the number one economic power in the world. One requires significant scrutiny, the other doesn’t. What’s the rationale for that? Less than 1pc of the population in China have a passport and you go through huge political scrutiny to get it, far more than we’ll ever impose on a visa application.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “China is one of the UK’s priority markets for tourism and business. Our Chinese visa system already provides an excellent service and we will continue to make further improvements wherever possible, but we will not compromise the security of our border.”