In the travel industry, the phenomenal growth in Chinese international tourism has truly become a hot topic. In the past, many Chinese visitors have been deterred from visiting the UK by our complex visa policy. In fact, the Hotels.com Chinese International Travel Monitor reveals that, although the UK is on the 'wish list' for Chinese travellers, we are losing out to other European countries such as France and Switzerland when it comes to these visitors actually reaching our shores.
UNWTO's World Tourism Barometer revealed that the Chinese led growth in international travel in 2013, spending 28 per cent more on trips abroad than other nations. This fast-growing and relatively untapped market presents a huge opportunity for the UK's businesses and tourism industry. As China's influence continues to grow, it essential that we tap into the appetite for travel amongst these tourists.
The New West End Company has warned that Britain risks losing £1.2bn of sales each year because Chinese visitors are put off by the difficult visa process. In addition, the UK China Visa Alliance estimates that only six per cent of Chinese visitors to Europe obtain two visas, while 85 per cent obtain a Schengen visa, allowing them to visit all 25 countries in the zone, and just nine per cent get a UK visa.
However, in the near future we should see the UK visa process for Chinese travellers become easier, encouraging more tourists to visit. Earlier this month, the UK government announced reforms to the current system meaning that the process will be streamlined, which should make the country more attractive to these affluent travellers.
The idea is that Chinese tourists applying online to visit the UK will be able to generate a partially completed Schengen form automatically, at the same time as completing their UK application. This helps to align the process of applying for a UK visa with the Schengen visa process.
In addition, a new joint British/Irish Visa Scheme will be introduced allowing Chinese visitors to travel to Britain with an Irish visa or travel to Ireland with a British visa, without having to fill out a separate form.
The government also promises to make the online application process more user-friendly, with translated questions that can be completed on a mobile or tablet, not just a PC.
The partially-completed Schengen form service will be available to independent travellers from this summer and, with our research showing that over two-thirds of Chinese tourists now prefer to travel independently, the sooner the reforms are introduced, the better.
These changes are a big step forward for UK businesses, although more can always be done. One in five of the Chinese travellers that we surveyed last year pointed to the ease of obtaining a visa as a top deciding factor when booking trips abroad, so simplifying the process should make a considerable difference.