Europe easing visa rules, opening offices to draw Chinese visitors

LONDON - European countries, led by France and the UK are seeking to pull in well-heeled Chinese tourists like never before, easing visa regulations and opening up new travel centres to make it easier for them to visit.

Under a pilot scheme announced by the UK and Belgian governments, UK visa centres in Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai will also handle Belgian visas, which allow Chinese visitors to travel throughout the 26-country Schengen area. During Premier Li Keqiang's recent visit to Brussels to attend an EU-China summit, it was announced the European Union will open visa centres in 15 Chinese cities that do not have an embassy or consulate.

At Li's stop in Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said his government would issue more long-term visas to Chinese visitors, and that it hopes to see the number of Chinese studying in France rise from 20,000 at present to 50,000 in the near future. Since January, French consulates in China have been issuing individual visas within 48 hours. Valls boasted France was "the only country to offer this."

While the UK has launched a 24-hour "super priority" visa, this is only available to business travelers and costs an eye-watering 600 pounds on top of the basic visa fee.

France is the world's top tourist destination, with almost 84 million visitors arriving last year. That included more than 2 million Chinese. France predicts the number will rise to 5 million in the near future. In May Chinese billionaire Li Jinyuan sent 6,400 of his employees on a four-day holiday to Nice and neighbouring Monaco. The caravan comprised around 150 tour buses.

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