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Home Secretary Theresa May has extended a pilot scheme that allows Chinese tour operators to use the European Schengen form to also apply for UK visas but her announcement failed to spark enthusiasm from business leaders.
Visa improvements unveiled by the Home Secretary, to convince Chinese premier Li Keqiang that Britain welcomes visitors from his country, have fallen flat with UK business leaders, who claim the Government is just tinkering “at the borders”.
Theresa May announced the extension of a pilot scheme, which allowed certain Chinese tour operators to use Europe’s Schengen form to also apply for UK visas, to all visitors from the world’s second biggest economy. The Home Office has agreed that Chinese visitors who have secured a visa for Ireland will, from the autumn, be allowed to visit the UK without going through a second application process. A 24 hour processing service will also be launched in August.
The Home Secretary insisted that previous improvements to the UK visa system for Chinese visitors had already led to a 40pc increase in visitor numbers last year and the latest changes will make it “easier than ever before to visit the UK and see first-hand everything this great country has to offer”.
Her announcement on Monday night was timed with the first day of Chinese premier Li Keqiang’s three-day visit to the UK and came after China’s ambassador to London on Friday embarrassed the UK Government with a warning that immigration rules in this country were “eroding Britain’s strength” in the world and deterring investment.
However, the Home Office’s grand announcement failed to spark much enthusiasm from UK business leaders, who have long warned that Britain is losing up to £1.2 billion a year due to its bureaucratic visa regime for Chinese visitors.
Michael Ward, the managing director of Harrods, said the announcement lacked substance. He questioned why American tourists can come to the UK without a visa for short trips while Chinese visitors have to apply for permission and give their finger prints.
Speaking from a business trip to Shanghai, Mr Ward said: “We are in the middle of trying to pull the UK economy back and yet we are turning our back on over £1bn of trade. That to me is where the logic escapes me. Any change is welcome but this is at the borders and not substantive. Being in Shanghai at the moment one of the top points people are saying is: ‘It is still difficult for us to get visas.’”
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways’ parent company, International Airlines Group, said: “We’re pleased the Government has recognised that the current visa regime is not fit for purpose. The UK has lost significant ground to its European competitors in recent years. These changes go in the right direction but fundamental reform will be required if we are to make the UK competitive with Schengen countries.”
While the UK did see a near 40pc rise in the number of visitor visas granted last year to Chinese nationals, to 291,919, campaigners pointed out that this was a mere drop in the ocean compared to the 1.4m Schengen visas granted during the same period. Schengen visas give Chinese tourists access to 26 countries in Europe, not including the UK.
The UK China Visa Alliance, a coalition of businesses whose members include Eurostar, Selfridges, InterContinental Hotels Group and Debenhams, called on the Home Office to strike agreements with neighbouring European countries that would allow Chinese visitors to submit the same form at the same processing centres for both UK and Schengen visas. Currently, even if tour operators cut down on paperwork by only filling out one Schengen form and photocopying it, the forms need to submitted at two different processing centres, one for Schengen and one for the UK.
There are fears that if Schengen countries also introduce the requirement for Chinese visitors to give biometric data, as expected, then tourists will be even less willing to apply for two visas as it will involve two separate trips to give finger prints.
Andrew Murphy, retail director at John Lewis and chairman of the UK China Visa Alliance, said the Home Office has made progress in what is a “difficult area” but until visitors only have to go to one processing centre “it all just lacks that final piece bringing it together”. However Mr Murphy added that he is hopeful of further developments soon.
The Home Office said talks are ongoing with other European countries “about further streamlining visa processes with Schengen arrangements to make trips to the UK even easier for Chinese visitors”.