Following comments from the Home Office that the visa issue for Chinese visitors to the UK is merely a ‘misconception’ and that the UK is offering a ‘good service’ I would like to respond by explaining why this is simply not the case.
The reality is that the UK visa application process remains far more complicated than in neighbouring EU countries such as France.
To compare between the UK and France: UK visas have to be obtained in person from the embassy – as a thumb print is required – and the application must be filled out in English.
Can the UK Immigration minister imagine having to fill in a form in Chinese to gain a visa to visit China? In the case of French visas, the application can be done in Chinese.
The visas for the UK take, on average, 15 days to be approved and for France the average is 10 working days.
Add to that the fact that UK visas are 50% more expensive than a visa for France and the UK visa only allows entry to the UK, whereas a French visa offers entry to 25 other European nations as part of the Schengen Agreement, and you have a much less attractive proposition for a Chinese traveller planning where to head on their next long-haul trip.
In 2012 France welcomed 1.15 million Chinese visitors to its cities and attractions. In the same year the UK only received 180,000 visitors.
We recently ran a survey at Travelzoo in China and asked our audience what they plan to spend per person on travel in 2013 – the average was over $7,000 per person and they plan to take at least four trips this year – two of them being overseas or long-haul.
This is a market with a large disposable income to spend on long-haul travel.
The potential growth is enormous – especially in China’s so-called ‘second-tier cities’ such as Chengdu and Dalian, where populations exceed that of London.
The French consulates in these cities are increasing their visa application headcount to deal with the increased demand for visas to France and the number of applications for visas has increased by 49%.
The French government is making this investment to bring down waiting times for visa applications. The cause and effect of this proactive approach is clear and is driving the growth of the visitor numbers from these areas with huge untapped potential. The UK would be wise to follow suit.
It is very important to note that this should not be a debate about the Home Office not doing enough to change visa application processes.
The drive to attract Chinese tourists should be a joint effort – even with the simplest visa process in the world, if there is no effort to create desire in the mind of the Chinese consumer, they simply will not come.
The UK should put in place an integrated campaign where the vibrant culture of the UK is ‘exported’ to China.
This is possible using positive brand ambassadors, targeted and localised advertising campaigns, film, TV and music combined with a concerted effort to work with Chinese tour operators to put together itineraries that appeal specifically to the Chinese mindset.
When promoting the country, the UK also needs to find a way to counter the Chinese desire for ‘one trip, three destinations’ versus ‘one trip, one destination.’
To put this in context – Chinese typically only have two major holidays per year over Chinese New Year and the October 1 National Day holiday.
This culture is changing as businesses become more international. However, it is still ingrained in the Chinese psyche that a long-haul trip should include more than one destination in order to get the most out of the holiday.
In reality, when Chinese experience the perceived perfect European holiday combining ‘France, Italy and Switzerland’, they rarely venture beyond Paris, Rome (Venice and Florence are also popular), and Lucerne or Zurich.
The UK should look at promoting England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales and, within that, key areas such as London, Edinburgh and the Cotswolds or Oxford to show that one trip to the UK has many elements.
When you consider that a 25% growth in visitors from China to the UK brought in an estimated additional £300 million to the UK economy in 2012, it is easy to see how big an opportunity the UK is missing out on by languishing under the 200,000 mark compared to France’s 1.15 million visitors.
These figures represent a drop in the ocean relative to the potential total Chinese market.
Travelzoo in Asia would very much like to help UK tourism interests and the Home Office navigate how to build a better bridge to the Chinese consumer and tap into the most significant tourism opportunity for the UK today.