In our 2010 report, we described the need for reform of the UK’s visa procedures as ‘critical’, stating that it was a ‘priority to put in place less expensive and more straightforward procedures for visas’.
Two and a half years on, the need for an overhaul has become more acute. The campaign for visa reform has now gained the support of The Telegraph, the CBI, Institute of Directors and the British Chambers of Commerce. Whilst welcoming the changes that were made in December 2012 and the further measures being introduced by the UKBA during 2013, the fact remains that the UK’s overall economic competitiveness is being seriously weakened by both international perceptions and the reality of visa policy driving business into the hands of our European competitors.
We are not calling for, nor expect, the UK to join the Schengen Agreement but we must recognise that other EU countries are able to offer international visitors (and investors) a ‘more attractive’ visa – simply because it can be used across 25 countries. Tour operators have been removing the UK out of European tours from China because of the need for both a Schengen and UK visa.
• The minimum changes required, in procedural and financial terms, are to bring the UK up to a Schengen equivalent as soon as possible and to review visa restrictions
• More far reaching opportunities would be sharing of biometric data with the French and German Governments and a ‘dual processing’ system which would allow Chinese visitors to submit their UK forms at the same time as their Schengen forms
• It is estimated that we miss out on an £1.2 billion in annual spend from Chinese tourists*
• It is worth looking at the visitor numbers from China in detail. The table below shows that the UK share of the Chinese outbound market has fallen since biometric testing was introduced in 2008.
This trend is enormously damaging for Britain. Any CEO would be alarmed at the declining trend. The UK’s performance has been poor compared to both France and Germany where estimated annual visitor numbers from China are now hundreds of thousands higher than Britain’s.
Britain should follow the example set by Australia – among others – which has introduced an online visa programme, storing personal information and doing away with personal stamps. The example from the United States suggests that it is the ‘ambitious’ agenda and not the ‘catch up’ agenda that we should follow. The US administration made a number of changes to its visa policies with the deliberate intention of increasing the number of international arrivals (especially from China). Their campaign is working, with significant increases in the number of visitors. In launching the USA’s National Travel and Tourism Strategy, President Obama stated that ‘the more folks who visit America, the more Americans will get back to work. It’s that simple.’
Comments by the Home Office and the UK Border Agency show that, at last, the balance of opinion within the Government is moving towards reform and towards a focus on improving the image and perception of the visa system. These need to be made as a matter of urgency. It is not just the hospitality and tourism sectors which will benefit from these changes. It is the British economy as a whole.