Nearly 400,000 Indians can’t be wrong. That was how many visited the UK last year. Why did they come? And why do we want to see even more Indian visitors in future?
Well, Indians come to the UK for the obvious reason: because it’s a great place to visit.
If you like culture - and Indians are the most culture-loving people I know – then the UK is the place: we have 28 UNESCO world heritage sites, like Stonehenge and Kew Gardens.
If you like natural beauty, then the UK is bursting with it, like the place I live in the UK, Marlow on Thames, or the beautiful Wye Valley in Wales where my parents lived, or Scotland’s majestic Highlands.
If you like excitement and glamour, come to the country of James Bond. This year sees the release of the latest Bond movie, Spectre, which has its world premiere in London next month.
If you like food, come to the country which has over 160 Michelin-starred restaurants and some of the world’s best local produce. President De Gaulle of France once complained that it was impossible to govern a country that had two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese. Well, David Cameron has an even harder task: in the UK we produce 700 different cheeses.
If you like Indian food, come to Britain. The celebrated Indian chef Camellia Panjabi, credited with introducing regional Indian cooking to the UK, will tell you that the best Indian cooking in the world right now is in the UK.
If you like Bollywood, come to the UK, and see the locations where over 50 Bollywood movies have been shot.
If you like whisky, come to the UK and sample some of the world’s best, preferably in one of Scotland’s single malt distilleries.
If you like golf, come and play at Gleneagles or one of the other world class courses in the UK.
If you like cricket, come to its birthplace at Lords. Though if you watch England, don’t expect miracles. There is a saying that the definition of optimism in the UK is an English batsman putting on sunscreen.
If you like theatre, come to London and see a new play every night, or visit the beautiful town of Stratford where Shakespeare was born.
If you like shopping, the UK is the place: fantastic products, great quality and huge choice – all on show at Bicester Village, or in London’s Oxford Street.
If you like royalty – and Indians understand royalty – come and see our historic palaces – the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court.
This one may surprise you: if you like dry weather, come to the UK. As the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is fond of reminding people, the city of Rome gets more rain than London.
So Indians come to the UK because it’s a fantastic place. They come for other reasons too.
They come because it’s great value. Indians are smart people. They choose carefully and they want the best value for money. The UK gives it to them. And many of the best things of all in the UK are free, like watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum which contains many treasures from India, or just a walk in the countryside.
And Indians come to the UK because we make them welcome. The UK is a very safe place to visit. The UK is also a very hospitable place to visit – anyone who saw the way the Brits welcomed foreign visitors to the 2012 Olympic Games will know that. And the UK is particularly welcoming to Indians. We speak your language. We eat your food. We both know that Yes Minister is not a comedy but a documentary.
And, of course, for many Indians coming to the UK is like coming home, because the largest diaspora we have in the UK is Indian. So most Indian visitors will have friends or family or a community somewhere in the UK.
Final point. One more reason why Indian tourists come to the UK is because we make it easy for them. In particular – and this may surprise you – our visa system is designed to work for our customers not against them. The UK visa system attracts a lot of criticism. Almost all of it is based on myths. Let me give you the facts.
We say yes to most visa applications. More than 90% of Indians who apply to visit the UK get their visa.
We do it quickly: the average processing time for a visa is six days, and we do it even faster for customers who choose one of our premium services.
We issue a lot of visas: the UK visa operation in India is the biggest in the world. In the year ending June 2015 we issued over 350,000 visitor visas for Indians, up 15% on the previous year.
And we constantly seek to improve our service. The UK now has more Visa Application Centres in India than anywhere else in the world: 15, in Delhi, Gurgaon, Chandigarh, Jalandhar, Mumbai (two), Pune, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Cochin, Kolkata, Jaipur and Goa.
We’ve also sought to make it easier for you in the travel business to help your customers get the visas they need. This year we simplified the visit visa route in response to feedback from the travel trade. We have cut the number of visit routes from 15 down to four and shortened the guidance to make the visa more flexible and the rules easier to understand.
We’ve also introduced the passport passback system, which allows Indians who want to visit the UK and other European countries to apply for their UK visa, then get their passport back while we process it so they can also apply for a Schengen visa at the same time.
Most recently we’ve introduced another new service here in India, the British Irish visa scheme, which allows Indians to travel to both the UK and Ireland on a single visit visa from either of those two countries.
I said we already get around 400,000 Indian visitors to the UK every year. But we want to see even more. Indian visitors benefit our economy: last year they spent £444m in the UK. And they take back to India good memories of the UK, which benefits the wider relationship between our two countries.
That’s why the UK government is a strong supporter of more Indian tourism to the UK, of what you all do to make it happen, and of Visit Britain. We’ve put our money where our mouth is, investing this year in a big Britain Is GREAT campaign here in India to sell British tourism, business and education to even more Indians.
And that’s why we listen: we’ve introduced those new visa arrangements I mentioned in response to demand from you, the travel professionals. We will keep listening to you, and I invite you to share with us what more we can do to make your lives easier and the UK an even more attractive place for Indians to visit.
Because we never forget that every Indian tourist planning a trip abroad has a choice. But we are confident that if they choose the UK, Indians will have an amazing holiday. So I hope you travel professionals will join with me in saying this to every Indian thinking about overseas travel: come to the UK. You’ll be welcome. You’ll have a great time. We hope to see you soon.