LONDON - The bosses of leading British retailers are lobbying the government to cut the red tape for visitors from China, amid warnings that Britain is losing out to European rivals in the race for tourist spending.
"The Chinese consumer is by far the largest spender among overseas visitors to the United Kingdom, and that spending is a vital area of growth if we are to remain globally competitive," says Mr Andrew Murphy, retail director of the upscale John Lewis department store. He now heads the UK China Visa Alliance (UKCVA), the body campaigning for a streamlined tourist visa process. Its other members include Harrods, Mulberry and Burberry.
What worries them is that Britain is at a disadvantage when it comes to enticing Chinese big spenders who visit Europe.
Most of the European Union (EU) countries operate a unified visa procedure, the so-called Schengen system. Under this arrangement, a visa issued by any single EU member-state is valid for travel through most of the continent.
The British, who have refused to join the Schengen arrangements, impose their own national visa requirements.
And, although the network of British consulates throughout China was recently expanded, British visa requirements remain onerous: Applicants must own property in China as evidence that they intend to return home, prove they have the cash for their planned trip, pay a fee of £100 (S$194) which is double that of the Schengen visa, wait for weeks and be prepared to be fingerprinted.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, most Chinese visitors and package tour operators give Britain a miss: While total arrivals from China stand at 2.6 million yearly in Europe, Britain admitted only 215,000 last year.
But, unlike other visitors, the Chinese are big spenders. According to national tourism board VisitBritain, the typical Chinese citizen spends £1,600 in Britain, almost three times the average for those of other nationalities.
Despite the retailers' entreaties, Immigration Minister Mark Harper has ruled out joining the Schengen scheme, saying that this would "compromise the security of the UK borders".
The government, he adds, has already simplified some of its bureaucratic requirements: The visa application form is now down to nine pages from the previous 10 and comes in a Chinese language version as well.
"The visa service for China is already working well - 97 per cent of visas are processed within 15 days," says Mr Harper.
The UKCVA insists that more could be done - the Schengen visa application forms are simpler and their processing time is also shorter, it says.
What it wants is for Britain to offer facilities to process British visa applications at the same time as Schengen applications; Chinese citizens will still have to pay separate visa fees and fill two separate forms, but they may at least be encouraged to consider a trip to Britain.
Informal visa tie-ups can benefit those involved. Ireland, Britain's closest neighbour, is also not a member of the Schengen visa regime and, for a while, had few Chinese visitors.
But the Irish came up with a shrewd idea: They simply abolished their visa requirements for Chinese citizens who already have a British visa stamped in their passports.
In effect, the Irish piggybacked on Britain, and benefited handsomely: The number of Chinese visitors to Ireland shot up by 21 per cent last year.
The British are now returning the compliment by proposing to establish a joint UK-Ireland visa processing facility for China; the hope is that this would offer Chinese visitors a bigger incentive to apply for the visa.
Yet that aside, the hands of the British government are largely tied on this matter. Britain cannot offer radically different arrangements for China without offering them to countries such as India, which is also complaining about onerous visa restrictions.
Also, public resentment against foreigners is peaking and the general election is less than two years away.
The idea that entry requirements should be relaxed so that more Chinese come to buy luxury goods in London is hardly a vote winner with ordinary voters. What is likely to go down well is an anti-immigration campaign.
This week, the British government announced that vans emblazoned with the message, "Go home or face arrest", are soon to be driven around London as a warning to illegal immigrants.
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