Fireworks and firecrackers were set off across the world a few days ago to mark the start of the Year of the Snake. In Chinese mythology the year is thought to bring good health and prosperity, however the government's rules on visas for Chinese visitors and the impact of the Euro crisis on hotel prices across the continent mean it could be anything but for UK tourism - despite the industry's best efforts.
China's strong economy and rapidly expanding middle class have ignited a desire amongst its people to holiday and shop overseas. The UN World Tourism Organization predicts that by 2020, as many as 100 million Chinese tourists will travel outside China every year. Among the world's highest spenders on holiday accommodation, Chinese tourists spent £107 per night on average on hotels overseas last year, with the average spend rising to £121 per night in the UK, according to Hotels.com Hotel Price Index.
Visitors from China are also big spenders when they are here. Typically Chinese visitors will spend in the region of £1,600 while in the UK - nearly three times the average tourist spend, according to Visit Britain. To capitalise on this many UK hoteliers have adapted their offerings to attract more Chinese guests, such as introducing Chinese food to menus for hotel restaurants and room service, supplying information in Chinese, hiring staff that speak Mandarin, and making Chinese TV channels and newspapers available.
Among the hotels that have made changes, the Ritz in London is leading the way. The hotel recently became Britain's first hotel to install China Union Pay terminals, so that Chinese guests can use China Union Pay cards to pay for accommodation, dining, souvenir gifts, and beauty treatments at the hotel. As a result, the Ritz is among the most searched for hotels in London by Chinese travellers.
Yet, despite the tourism industry's best efforts, figures from Hotels.com reveal that the French have stolen the UK's crown as the most popular European destination for Chinese tourists and business travellers. Searches for hotels in the French capital overtook those in London last year, despite the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and London Olympics adding to the city's world class tourist attractions.
While this is partly due to the Euro crisis making hotel prices in continental Europe more attractive to visitors from China, France's more relaxed rules on visas have also had an impact. Some estimates suggest that as much as 50 per cent more Chinese tourists now visit France than the UK, with a main reason being that it is considerably easier for visitors from China to gain a visa there than it is here.
A key reason for this is that France - unlike the UK - is part of the Schengen Area along with 25 other countries, including most of the EU. This means that international visitors can visit all 26 countries with a single visa. Getting a visa is also much easier. Whereas in the UK, Chinese visitors must fill out a 10 page form - in English - to gain a 30 day visa, a 90 day visa for the Schengen Area can be gained by filling out a four page form in Mandarin. And since many visitors from China do not speak English, that means they will often have to pay an agency to help them with their application.
Aside from being a headache for hoteliers and tourists attractions that have made investments in making their services more accommodating to Chinese visitors, the UK's complicated visa rules are directly impacting retailers hoping to cater to affluent Chinese visitors' tastes for designer clothing and accessories. Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods, estimates that London alone could be missing out on £1.5 billion a year due to the country's visa rules.
It's not all doom and gloom though; the Home Office has announced that it will make a number of improvements to the rules on visas- including translating the visa application form - however these changes have been widely criticised for not going far enough and won't be introduced until April.
To benefit from the burgeoning Chinese tourism market, it is vital that we relax our visa rules before it is too late. This country has already emerged as a top destination for Chinese travellers however we risk being outpaced by other popular destinations across continental Europe if we don't make it our new year's resolution to relax our visa rules and welcome Chinese visitors with open arms.