The hospitality industry has welcomed the home secretary's plans to simplify the visa process for Chinese people to travel to the UK.
In confirming the importance of China as a priority growth market for tourism and business visitors, Theresa May said: "We've made it easier for Chinese visitors to come here by simplifying documentation requirements, establishing a new business network across China, extending our express visa service, and introducing a new passport pass-back scheme for visa applicants."
The key improvements include a shortened and streamlined application process for visas, dedicated embassy staff to assist businesses with visa requirements, improved training for agents assisting Chinese travellers, and a mobile biometric service, enabling applicants to have their information taken at more convenient regional locations than the existing visa application centres.
The British Hospitality Association (BHA) said that although the number of travellers from China rose by a third last year to 149,000 (a rise of about 35% from 2010), the UK was outperformed in the market by France and Germany. Martin Couchman, deputy chief executive of the BHA, welcomed the home secretary's announcement as being "the first substantial result of the Tourism Regulation Taskforce report, which the BHA produced earlier this year".
Chinese visitors to the UK tend to book into hotels with a strong international brand, such as Holiday Inn, but independent hotels, such as Hartwell House and the Arch in London, are now taking steps to attract lucrative business from China.
Grant Powell, general manager of the 82-bedroom Arch London, said that the new initiatives are welcome news for hotels and the British economy as a whole. "The shortened online application forms align the processes shared by most of the leading European countries. It is likely to add millions of pounds to the hospitality industry and also help create new jobs," he said.
"As a luxury boutique hotel that has a strong emphasis on British heritage and contemporary design, I consider us perfectly positioned to attract the Chinese luxury traveller. The Chinese markets are no doubt among the most discerning in terms of quality and service. We have chosen to target this audience in the past year and have seen an 80% increase in business from China compared with 2011.
"We now have several Mandarin-speaking staff, and we travel to China twice a year for business purposes."
Jonathan Thompson, director and general manager of the four-AA-red-star, 46-bedroom Hartwell House in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, said that anything that makes tourist travel to the UK easier was good news for hotels.
He explained that the hotel has already taken steps to welcome Chinese travellers to the hotel by providing translations in Chinese for the hotel's website and by working closely with the National Trust property Waddesdon Manor and the nearby outlet shopping centre of Bicester Village in hosting visiting journalists from China.
"We know that the Chinese market is strong and discerning, and we as hoteliers have got to hook into it and do everything we can to look after the guests when they come," said Thompson.
Travelodge's chief executive, Grant Hearn, also reacted positively to the announcement. "The initiatives will play a significant part in helping our economy recover, whilst creating new jobs, boosting growth and helping put Great Britain back on the worldwide tourist map," he said.
VisitBritain, which aims to increase the number of visits from China to 382,000 by 2020, said that Chinese visitors spend around three times as much as other visitors in the UK.
By Janet Harmer
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