Steps are being taken to make it easier for visitors from China and other emerging markets to travel to the UK, for both pleasure and business, the home secretary Theresa May announced this morning.
In a speech in which May outlined the Government's future immigration plans, she confirmed the importance of China as a priority growth market for tourism and business visitors.
"That's why 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," she explained.
While 50% of visas are currently being processed within five days and 97% within 15 days, the Government has decided to respond to customers' requests for a fast, transparent, simple and easy to access service which will help make the UK a more attractive option for tourists and business visitors. The changes include:
Simplified Approved Destination Scheme (ADS) process: including shortened online application form and streamlined requirements for ADS customers.
Assistance for business: a business network has been established, with dedicated embassy staff to assist businesses with their UK visa requirements.
Passport pass-back: a service for business travellers and ADS tourists which allows customers to keep their passport while their visa is being processed. This means they can travel or apply for another visa if they need to, reducing the time it takes to get two visas.
Visa training for agents: a new online visa training module for the Brit Agent network in China so they can better assist Chinese customers wanting to travel to the UK.
Convenient biometric capture: a mobile biometric service which will be available to applicants who wish to have their biometric information taken at a location more convenient to them, rather than visiting a visa application centre.
Priority visa eligibility: expanded to include Tier 4 students and those who have previously travelled within Schengen.
Improved application processes: improvements to the online application process (in April 2013) including the introduction of translated application forms.
An enhanced Select Business Scheme: the enhanced scheme will remove the onerous reporting requirements that have made it cumbersome and bureaucratic for many companies.
The new initiatives have been welcomed by Patricia Yates, director of strategy and communications at VisitBritain.
"The introduction of shorter and translated application forms, as well as a reduction in documentary requirements is extremely welcome as these were identified by VisitBritain as areas where the UK could improve its visa service to out compete those of the Schengen member states, as well as Australia and the USA. In addition, we are pleased to support the UK Border Agency's (UKBA) efforts by adding a visa module to our BritAgent programme, which provides training to tour operators and travel agents in China," she said.
"China is a key growth market for international tourism and a market in which Britain needs to compete effectively to ensure that we continue to be in the top 10 of tourism destinations. Improvements in the visa process will support our ambition to attract 40 million visitors a year by 2020 and we have been working closely with UKBA to inform their thinking."
Travelodge's chief executive Grant Hearn, also reacted positively to today's announcement. "This is great news for our industry and the British economy," he said. "We have been working very hard alongside the British Hospitality Association for a change to simplify the UK visa process, especially for new emerging markets. The initiatives introduced today 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.
"We are especially pleased that the world's fastest growing tourism market, China, has been acknowledged as part of the new plans. Simplifying the visa system shows that the UK is open for business and means we can now confidently compete with our European neighbours by attracting a vast tourist market with huge spending power. This will undoubtedly create new employment opportunities in the UK.
Britain attracted around 149,000 visits from China last year (a rise of about 35% from 2010), although it was outperformed by both France and Germany. VisitBritain, which aims to increase the number of visits from China to 382,000 visits 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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