The UK-India relationship is one of both traditional and contemporary strength. Current business secretary Sajid Javid has described the partnership as being at a “key juncture” and as providing “opportunities we would be foolish to ignore”.
And with a UK-India trade agreement hailed a “deal made in heaven” by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), now is indeed the moment for the UK to reassert its global attractiveness.
That is why we have launched a report in partnership with leading aviation and tourism groups recommending that the UK matches the recent UK-Chinese deal and offers Indian nationals a new two-year £87 visitor visa for business and leisure purposes.
Last year, 420,000 Indians visited the UK and spent a total of £433m. Yet Britain’s market share of global Indian tourists has halved over the last decade, costing the UK economy an estimated £0.5bn per year and over 8,000 jobs.
Compounding this trend, France has now leapfrogged the UK as India’s most visited European destination, drawing 500,000 visitors from India in 2015. Other competitor countries such as the US and Canada are also increasing their Indian visitor numbers, and crucially maintaining their own market share.
This trend matters to business and to Londoners. Indian business visitors make up over one quarter of the annual visitors from the country and spend a total of £201m – more than their Chinese counterparts. Indians are also the largest diaspora in the UK, with 1.4m people.
Their cultural impact is significant, from the cuisine Britons sample each day, to music, fashion, and cricketing prowess. While in London, Indians top the overall table of residents born outside Britain, at over a quarter of a million people. Ten of the capital’s 32 boroughs are also home to more Indian residents born outside the UK than those from any other nation.
At present, Indian visitors continue to pay a hefty £330 for a two-year visa, or £87 for six months. Meanwhile, in the US, the price for a ten-year visitor visa is just $160. There is simply no contest. This is in contrast to the offer David Cameron made to China last year, which grants its visitors an £87 two-year visa.
As CII makes clear in our report, the status quo affects the UK’s business growth: “a cheaper two-year visa would enhance the ease of business with the UK as compared to securing a visa every six months. And that’s how business in the twenty-first century should be – practical, productive, and problem-free.”
Furthermore, India’s demographics are encouraging. The Indian outbound visitor market is growing at 10 per cent every year and its overall middle class is estimated to grow from 24m to 200m in the next decade. This group will gain greater disposable income and naturally wish to travel abroad. Yet despite the close bonds, the UK is currently losing out, and must do more to encourage Indian visitors.
Next year also sees the UK-India Year of Culture, marking 70 years since Indian Independence. The year-long programme of events will celebrate collaboration in the arts, business, music, design and much, much more. I stress year on purpose.
If the existing state of affairs remains, then Indians would have to pay more than Chinese visitors who can access the UK more favourably. This is extraordinary. At the very least, as two of the leading emerging economies, India and China should be seen as equals in UK policy terms.
In light of the EU referendum result, we are witnessing a number of Commonwealth nations seeking free trade talks with the UK. If negotiations progress, then visitor visas for business people will become a part of this mix. Whoever Theresa May appoints as home secretary will also impact decisions on visa reform.
Failing to address these concerns will hamper progress on trade. What better way than visitor visa reform with the Commonwealth’s largest nation to position the UK as an excellent destination to visit and do business for mutual benefit and prosperity.