In December 2012, the UK government announced that it would reform the visa application process for Chinese tourists by shortening the documents, translating them into Mandarin and requiring less documentation overall. Other initiatives, such as a “VIP visa service” (UK visa officers visit offices to collect application materials) and “passport pass back” (eligible travellers being allowed to keep their passports during the application process), were rolled out during 2013. These changes contributed to a strong increase in the number of Chinese tourists during the first half of 2013, with the number of visits up by 21% and spending up by 132%, according to VisitBritain. The country aims to continue on this path through more improvements to the visa process and additional training for the UK tourism industry.
2014 Will Bring Additional Reforms
In October 2013, the UK government unveiled several new initiatives:
- The creation of a “super priority” visa service which allows applicants to pay an extra fee to reduce the application process to 24 hours
- A pilot scheme to allow selected Chinese travel agencies to use the EU’s Schengen visa forms for UK visa applications
- Possible expansion of the VIP mobile visa service to other cities beyond Beijing and Shanghai
The creation of a super priority visa service will certainly help lucrative business travellers who often have to travel at short notice, while using the Schengen application form is an important step in encouraging Chinese tourists to include the UK on their multi-country trips. Additionally, it could drive return visits to the UK as travellers will have all the documents from their previous visa. The potential expansion of the VIP mobile service to other cities would likely lead to growth in the number of visitors as obtaining a visa becomes easier. In particular, the European Travel Commission has identified secondary cities as having strong pent-up demand for travel to Europe, so it will be crucial for the UK to market to these cities.
Aid to Industry Will Supplement Visa Reforms
To ensure that Chinese tourists enjoy their trip to the UK, VisitBritain is set to launch a campaign called “China Welcome” in the spring of 2014. The organisation will work with the tourism industry on how to cater for Chinese tourists, for example by sharing consumer insights and promoting translations. The organisation has also endorsed UKinbound’s Chinese Tour Guide Accreditation Scheme, which starts in February 2014.
All of these changes signal a move in the right direction, especially if the UK government decides to work with the Schengen visa application and rolls out the VIP mobile service to more cities. However, the country still has a long way to go, ranking only sixth for Chinese visitors to Western Europe in 2012.