A new visa processing system designed to make it easier for 'high value' visitors from China is being introduced. The system for getting a UK visa has been criticised not just by Chinese tourists, students and business people but within the Cabinet. Sources have told ITV news that the Home Office has been reluctant to make the visa process for Chinese applicants any easier despite pressure from ministers with business briefs.
Talking to one Chinese tour operator in Beijing recently; I got a sense of the problem. He told me that it was cheaper and much easier to get a Schengen visa, allowing access to a number of EU countries, compared to getting a UK visa. To get a visa to visit Britain, a Chinese applicant has to go in person to have their photo and fingerprints taken. For a French visa, the travel agent told me, he would just take the passports, in the case he was talking about: a "pile of passports", and they would all be stamped and processed without the applicant present. He said he'd had one trip to the UK cancelled because five out of the 25 applicants were turned down. So all 25 pulled out.
The tour operator told me that wealthy Chinese visitors are unwilling to go along and queue up in person. In China, the VIP concept is widespread in daily life for the new wealthy middle classes. For some, the attitude is that they don't have to queue for nightclubs or the best restaurants so why should they be expected to queue for a visa. Especially when other European countries don't require you to turn up in person.
So now the UK Border Agency is offering two new services aimed at attracting more wealthy Chinese visitors. The VIP mobile service would entail a visa officer collecting the application from a 'high value' applicant. So, no having to go along in person, and no queuing.
The other service allows Chinese business visitors to keep their passports while their visa application is being processed. Meaning they can still travel around domestically and internationally. Chinese citizens can only have one passport. This reflects another criticism; that a UK visa takes too long to be dealt with.
So within the UK government there will be smiles from those who have been pushing for easier access for high spending Chinese shoppers and business people. There's also been a campaign by some of Britain's best known companies like British Airways to loosen up the visa regulations. The West End of London and the shopping village in Bicester will, no doubt. welcome more visitors from China who on average spend much more than domestic customers.
The 'high value' services are still restricted however, only available in Beijing or a few other larger cities, reflecting continuing caution from the Border Agency.