The government took the opportunity of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain last month to announce some extremely welcome changes to visitor visas for Chinese tourists.
It said that it will introduce a new two-year multiple-entry visa from January, and thereafter a 10-year equivalent, and both products will cost just £85, the same as the current standard six-month visa. Previously, the cost of a two-year and 10-year visitor visa had been £324 and £737 respectively.
This is great news for tourism and should increase growth and boost the number of jobs across the country, including, I hope, at Britain’s popular visitor attractions.
Last year, the UK received 2.5m visitors from countries, like China, where tourists need visitor visas to enter. In 2014, these tourists spent nearly £4bn during their stays, providing employment for over 76,000 people. They spent an average of over £1,500 per person per visit – almost three times the amount spent by visitors from other countries.
As welcome as this performance is, however, the UK tourism sector has been saying for some time that we could and should be doing a lot better, if only we made it easier for these visitors to get visas.
China is an obvious example. Despite visitor numbers to the UK increasing by 49 per cent since 2007, over the same period, overall outbound travel from China to countries around the world has risen by a whopping 176 per cent. Last year, visitor numbers to the UK from China were down 6.7 per cent, against an increase in total outbound tourism of 12 per cent.
To put it bluntly, global competition for visitors from China is intense and, in terms of market share, we are currently losing out badly to our main competitors in the United States and continental Europe.
So I am thrilled that the government is taking action which should make a real difference. However, there is much more that could be done to boost tourism – not only from China but from other visa-national countries, not least India.
President Xi is not our only eminent visitor from Asia this month. Next week, Britain will welcome India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We shouldn’t be discriminating between these two countries and I urge the government to consider announcing a similar package for Indian tourists during Modi’s visit.
The UK has severely under-performed on visitors from India, up just 18 per cent since 2007, while overall outbound travel from that country has increased by 84 per cent. Last year, visitor numbers from India to the UK rose by just 3.4 per cent, while total outbound tourism increased by 8.4 per cent.
Cutting the cost of long-term visas for China is an excellent start – but if that policy were applied across all visa-national countries, including India, the government would save £12.5m in visa-processing costs, the UK economy would be £400m larger, and 750 additional jobs would be created.
Modi’s visit next week is to end with a spectacular party at Wembley Stadium. Let’s give him – and our wonderful tourism industry – something to really celebrate.