The founder of high end concierge service, Quintessentially, has called for the government to 'rubber stamp' a number of wealthy Chinese tourists' visas to encourage them to visit the UK and support British businesses.
Chinese visa applications hit the headlines last year for being too complicated, too long and written only in English - all of which are allegedly contributing to putting off Chinese businesses and tourists from coming to our shores.
Currently the UK only receives one Chinese visitor for every eight that travel to France, which shares much simpler visa rules with the rest of the EU.
This is despite the current cache attached to British firms, which are extremely fashionable at the moment for Chinese consumers. The typical Chinese visitor spends £1,600 while in the UK, almost three times the average, according to VisitBritain.
Speaking to the Huffington Post UK, Ben Elliot said the rules needed changing, but that he'd advocate a more radical approach to encourage the wealthy Chinese to spend their money in our shops.
"I know I bang on about this relentlessly, but it really is a nonsense - you speak to Selfridges about who was shopping there on Boxing Day and they'll tell you it was the Chinese shoppers who were outspending everyone else," he said.
"It seems to me that the Home Office has this idea that most Chinese visitors will be immigrants who will either go into the cockle picking business on the south coast or go into China Town and never be seen again. Their refusal to do anything (to make the visa system simpler) is stonewalling our opportunity."
Elliot has suggested that the 20 top UK businesses with whom Chinese tourists trade should compile a list of their best Chinese customers, centralise them and hand over the top "few thousand" to be 'rubber stamped' and sped through the visa process.
These people, Elliot claims, are "unlikely to outstay their welcome" due to their family, assets and businesses at home, so the Home Office should be less concerned about them.
Quintessentially is not the only brand concerned about the issue; in Thursday's Telegraph, business leaders including British Airways boss Willie Walsh, Nick Varney, chief executive of the Madame Tussauds owner Merlin Entertainments, and Grant Hearn, Travelodge chief, warned that Britain is missing out on China's high consumer spending power as wealthy tourists vote with their feet and go elsewhere on holiday to avoid UK visa red tape.
Currently half of all Chinese visas are processed within five days, and 97% within 15 days, but the Home Office has agreed to improve the system. These new measures will be implemented over the next six months and include:
- Simplified Approved Destination Scheme (ADS) process: including shortened online application form and streamlined requirements for ADS customers
- Assistance for business: a business network has been established, with dedicated Embassy staff to assist businesses with their UK visa requirements
- Passport pass-back: a service for business travellers and ADS tourists which allows customers to keep their passport while their visa is being processed. This means they can travel or apply for another visa if they need to, reducing the time it takes to get two visas
- Visa training for agents: a new online visa training module for the Brit Agent network in China so they can better assist Chinese customers wanting to travel to the UK
- Convenient biometric capture: a mobile biometric service which will be available to applicants who wish to have their biometric information taken at a location more convenient to them, rather than visiting a visa application centre
- Priority visa eligibility: expanded to include Tier 4 students and those who have previously travelled within Schengen
- Improved application processes: improvements to the online application process (in April 2013) including the introduction of translated application forms
- An enhanced Select Business Scheme: the enhanced scheme will remove the onerous reporting requirements that have made it cumbersome and bureaucratic for many companies
A Home Office spokesperson wasn't able to comment on Elliot's specific proposal, but told the Huffington Post UK: “The Home Office takes the growth agenda very seriously and we are committed to building on the considerable progress we have made in making sure the brightest and best people come to our country.
"Last year, the number of visas issued to Chinese nationals was up by 7%. We are simplifying documentation requirements, establishing a new business network across China, extending our express visa service, and introducing a new passport pass-back scheme for visa applicants.
"China is one of the UK's priority markets for tourism and business and we are committed to providing an ever improving service to support this."