BEIJING – Britain says it will make it easier for China’s citizens to obtain visas, as it seeks a bigger share of the multibillion-dollar Chinese traveler market against stiff European competition.
Finance minister George Osborne, who is in China leading a British trade delegation, promised the new measures would help the tens of thousands of Chinese visitors hoping to visit Britain.
“Have announced new measures to simplify + speed up visa applications for visitors from #China,” the chancellor of the exchequer wrote on his official Twitter account.
“Good for tourism and British business,” Osborne said.
Chinese tourists visiting the European Union using selected travel agencies will no longer have to file a separate application to visit Britain, which is not part of the EU’s Schengen Area for border-free travel.
Businesspeople will also be able to apply for a “super-priority” visa, which will be processed within 24 hours rather than a week.
Some 210,000 visas were issued to Chinese nationals in 2012, adding around £300 million ($480 million) to the British economy.
But Peking University student Chen Xiao said the current British visa application process was “a nuisance and time consuming”.
“The amount of forms needed to obtain a British visa isn’t small compared to other countries,” she added. “Also they require you to show proof of assets. So this is a challenge for those who come from less wealthy backgrounds.”
Analysts say Britain has missed out on benefiting from Chinese tourists’ spending power, partly because of its visa rules.
According to the U.N.’s World Tourism Organization, China has become the world’s most valuable source of tourists, with expenditure on overseas travel reaching $102 billion in 2012.
But France attracted 1.4 million tourist trips from China last year, around six times as many as Britain, Franziska Brandenburger of research firm Euromonitor International wrote in a recent note.
Among Western European countries, Britain was also behind Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Spain, the company said, leaving it in sixth place.
“Currently the majority of Chinese tourists opt for other European destinations as a consequence of the visa application process,” wrote Brandenburger.
“Europe has laid out the red carpet to Chinese consumers.”
During his visit, Osborne is trying to win over a Chinese government that has rebuffed Britain due to a meeting last year between Prime Minister David Cameron and the Dalai Lama.
In a speech at Peking University on Monday, Osborne insisted “there is no country in the West more open to investment — especially from China” than Britain.
“There are some in the West who see China growing and they are nervous,” he said.
“They think of the world as a cake — and the bigger the slice that China takes, the smaller the slice that they will get.
“I totally and utterly reject this pessimistic view. If we make the whole cake bigger, then all our peoples will benefit.
“I don’t want Britain to resent China’s success, I want us to celebrate it. I don’t want us to try to resist your economic progress, I want Britain to share in it.”
At the weekend a deal was announced between a Chinese construction group and British firms to develop a business district around Manchester airport, Britain’s third busiest.
Meanwhile Energy Secretary Ed Davey said it was “possible we will see massive Chinese investment” in Britain’s power sector, “not just in nuclear but across the board.”
Osborne is in China with London Mayor Boris Johnson, who welcomed the visa plans.
“When Chinese tourists come to London classically they spend very considerable sums of money — it’s good news for the city.
“If it doesn’t happen it’s a missed opportunity and I don’t want to see that business going to Paris.”
Beijing’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying welcomed the changes. “We see this as a positive development,” she said.