I am very pleased to be joining you for this evening’s event.
Today the UK China Visa Alliance launches its report “Building on Progress” which examines ways the UK can continue to attract ever greater numbers of Chinese visitors to this country.
The spending power brought about by China’s economic revolution provides us with enormous opportunities. This week the Prime Minister will be welcoming the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to the UK so that we can continue to strengthen the link between our two countries.
This continuing closeness is something we all want to see in many areas including tourism. Visit Britain estimates that every Chinese tourist to the UK spends on average £2500. So there is direct economic value. But there is also enormous value in increasing cultural ties, and the potential impact that holds for future education, investment and the success of British brands in the Chinese market.
I want to see increasing numbers of Chinese visitors enjoying all the fantastic tourist attractions across the UK from the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace and the Lake District and the magnificent scenery in Scotland and Wales.
I know many of you here – hoteliers, restaurateurs, retailers, and all those involved in the tourism industry – work extremely hard to ensure that all tourist and business travellers have a great experience when they visit Britain.
So I want to thank you for all that you do to show them everything this country has to offer, particularly those of you that are part of the GREAT China Welcome programme.
We have a good story to tell
At the Home Office we have listened to the views of British businesses, travel companies and Chinese customers and have taken steps to improve our visa service – and as a result we are seeing record numbers of Chinese visitors flocking to the UK.
In 2013 we issued more than 290,000 visitor visas to Chinese nationals, up nearly 40% on 2012.
Chinese nationals who apply for a British visa are very likely to get one – with 96% of Chinese visit visas approved.
And of all the UK’s visa operations, in 2013 we saw the biggest increase in visitor numbers from China.
And I just want to address some of the myths we still hear about visas. It’s not true for example that last year we issued fewer visitor visas than Belgium. It’s not true that we are miles behind France – last year we issued only slightly fewer visas to Chinese tourists than they did. And in fact we are gaining ground on Schengen countries – because last year the number of visit visas granted by the UK grew faster than France in particular and Schengen countries overall.
So the message is clear: Britain is open to Chinese tourists and business travellers who are most welcome when they come here.
Our Chinese visa system provides an excellent service
Many of the changes we have introduced to our Chinese visa service are ensuring it really is first class.
We have upgraded, expanded and branded our Visa Application Centres in China to increase capacity and strengthen our welcome. We have 12 centres across the major cities – more than any other country.
We have made our processes less bureaucratic.
And we continue to provide a service that is easy to access, ensures fast-turn around times, and provides fast-track priority services for those that want them.
In fact – most Chinese nationals applying for a non-settlement UK visa will have one issued in just over seven days – with 98% of visit visas issued within our 15 working day target.
Moreover, Approved Destination Scheme visit visas are processed in an average of just over five days.
In the last year many of the initiatives we have introduced are proving increasingly popular.
Those who want their visa issued quickly can choose the 3 to 5 day priority visa service – in July last year 11,000 customers used this service.
We have brought in a Passport Pass Back service so that customers can retain their passport while their UK visa application is being processed.
And we have introduced a VIP Mobile Visa Service for high-value travellers who would like the convenience of visa staff going directly to them to collect the biometric data necessary for a visa.
Over the last five months we have delivered this service in three new locations in response to demand and we continue to expand and promote its reach.
All these changes are working. They provide greater flexibility and choice. And we know they have been welcomed by many travellers and tour operators in China. In fact, China Perfect Travel in Beijing told us: Chinese tourists are “very welcome” in the UK and that “obtaining a visa has become much easier.”
But there is more we can do, and we are doing it
But I know we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.
As China’s economy continues to grow, tapping into the potential that offers is vital to the UK. And we must ensure we can attract a healthy share of the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, Chinese tourists spent nearly £63 billion on foreign travel in 2012, topping the tourist spend of any country. And this spend is set to rise substantially potentially to around £120 billion by 2015 according to Morgan Stanley.
I know many people have argued that Britain should join Schengen.
But I have been absolutely clear that I do not believe this is the answer.
The reason a Schengen visa is valid for 26 countries is because there are no border controls between these countries.
Our border controls in northern France and Belgium are absolutely vital in ensuring we only allow those we want to come to the UK to enter.
We must ensure a migration system that commands public confidence, serves our economic interest, and protects the UK from immigration abuse.
The use of biometric data helps us to strengthen control of our borders, confirming identity and giving us greater assurance around the background of those who want to come here.
But while I have said we will not be joining Schengen, there are a range of other things we can do.
So today I want to tell you about our latest initiatives.
This August we will be launching a super priority 24 hour visa service which will dramatically speed-up the process for those who want to have a visa issued quickly. We are the only European country to offer this – a testament I believe to the Government’s determination to ensure we have a truly first class visa service on offer.
We have also made significant improvements to our online application process. Later this month we will trial a new application service in China. It will be simpler, more user-friendly, with translated and intuitive questions, asking customers only those necessary for their individual application. It will be launched on our new improved website, and is as easy to complete on a mobile or tablet as it is on a desktop computer.
But most importantly, we are working to make it much easier for Chinese people to visit the UK and mainland Europe on the same trip.
Last year a pilot scheme which enabled tour operators to operate from a single application form in processing UK and Schengen visa applications proved highly successful. We will be extending it to all Chinese visitors applying to the UK starting this summer with independent travellers. Now those applying online will be able to automatically generate a partially completed Schengen form 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 – and I would like us to seek further alignment with Schengen applications.
Talks are ongoing with European partners about further streamlining visa processes with Schengen arrangements to make trips to the UK even easier for Chinese visitors.
Currently, we are exploring the development of a “single Visa Application Centre visit” concept which would enable customers who visit a UK application centre to submit both UK and Schengen visa applications at the same time.
Although, of course, progress will be dependent on getting the agreement of a Schengen partner.
And finally, I am very pleased to announce a new joint British/Irish Visa Scheme – which will allow Chinese visitors with an Irish visa to travel to Britain, or with a British visa to travel to Ireland – without the need for a separate visa.
This arrangement will greatly improve both the British and the Irish offer to Chinese visitors and I hope will encourage ever greater numbers to explore both of these beautiful, vibrant, richly cultured island nations. The British/Irish Visa Scheme will also be launched in India.
As I said earlier, we have a good story to tell. The Government is playing its part. But by working together we can do more to improve our appeal to Chinese visitors.
The cross Government marketing campaign – GREAT – is helping to sell Britain as a great tourist destination to overseas travellers.
But I would like to see all those in the tourist industry helping to pitch Britain as a great place to visit – not only to increase the numbers of visitors, but to encourage those who do visit to stay here longer, and to spend more money in our hotels, at tourist attractions and on luxury goods. Alongside the group tours we know the Chinese independent travel sector is growing and we can do more to appeal to that sector too. It is important that we all provide a clear, unambiguous welcome.
Part of that appeal is making sure Chinese visitors know about the improved UK visitor visa service that’s on offer – and that all of us work together to dispel the persistent myths that we still hear and that can put people off.
Britain is a hugely attractive tourism destination – and these changes along with the fantastic visa service we already have in place will encourage even more visitors from China to discover it for themselves.
Having a visa system is vital to protecting Britain’s borders. But I want to make sure we have a system which is as efficient as possible in welcoming tourists and business people from around the world.
Britain is open to the brightest and best. And we are open to Chinese visitors who want to come and enjoy all the fantastic sights and experiences this great country has to offer.