Trade with China has been harmed by a British visa regime that makes foreign businessmen and visitors feel unwelcome, the UK’s leading airline executive has claimed.
Speaking on the inaugural flight of BA’s direct service to Chengdu, the rapidly expanding capital of Sichuan province, Walsh said: “We need a visa regime that is less bureaucratic. People need to feel that the UK is actually welcoming. There is a perception in China that the UK doesn’t want to see Chinese tourists or business. We need to put a bit of effort into changing that.
“The government talks a good talk about wanting to do business in China, but if they’re going to translate that into real opportunity they’re going to have to look more closely at the visa issue.”
He said that air passenger duty, the British aviation tax that adds £83 to the cost of an economy flight to China, and visa fees were “a real deterrent” to visitors. Walsh said limited slots at Heathrow airport had been one factor that had slowed BA’s expansion into China, but said visas were “without question a problem for us”, and claimed that they would have launched the direct Chengdu service a year ago had problems been ironed out.
While Walsh said there had been improvements in the regime, he contrasted the £56 price of a visa for the Schengen area of EU countries – where passport and immigration controls have been abolished – with the £80 it costs a Chinese visitor to enter the UK alone. The market was also more difficult for airlines at Heathrow compared with those at other European hubs where visas for transfer passengers are not required, he said.
He warned that it meant that Chinese visitors, the fastest growing sector of global travellers, were “bypassing” the UK, and said Britain would need to work harder to attract them. “We’ll need to have more people who speak Chinese and Mandarin. We’re losing out on the organised tour groups. It does embarrass me that we don’t make more effort.”
Walsh said that while China was the eighth biggest export market for the UK, “it’s still significantly behind where it could be, when you look at China in terms of its principal imports. There is an opportunity for a lot more trade.”
BA is hoping to tap into a growing business and leisure market at Chengdu, China’s fourth-largest city with a population of 14 million and a large financial, electronics and manufacturing base, whose airport has seen passenger numbers grow from 5.5 million to 32 million in the last 12 years. Advocates of Heathrow expansion have frequently cited Chengdu as an example of a destination inadequately linked to Britain due to capacity constraints.
Walsh said he did not expect politicians to act on the Airports Commission’s impending report on airport capacity, and he criticised David Cameron and George Osborne for a lack of vision. While he said that economic recovery could be seen in London, he queried if it existed beyond the capital. “If I was Osborne I certainly wouldn’t be popping the champagne corks at this stage.
“I haven’t seen much evidence of visionary leadership there. To me, they respond to whatever’s topical rather than setting out a long-term plan and a long-term vision for growth in the UK economy.”
Airports want easier Chinese visas for the UK as Chinese spend so much at the airport
Chinese tour operators ‘striking Britain from itineraries’ over visa rules
Airport owners and retailers claim Chinese tour operators are “striking Britain from their itineraries” because of the UK’s “cumbersome” visa system, which is costing the UK economy £1.2bn in lost tourist revenue. (They are not blaming APD). The Airport Operators Association and the UK Travel Retail Forum have written to 4 cabinet ministers, including George Osborne and Theresa May, outlining the problem. Airport operators and retailers say Chinese visitors spend 9 times the amount of US visitors passing through duty free. The airports etc want the Government to simplify the UK’s visa regime because at present, Chinese visitors view the UK’s visa system as “expensive, bureaucratic and lacking in transparency”, and it is easier to visit Europe (which can be done on just one visa, which is cheaper than the UK visa). Currently, Chinese nationals wishing to visit Britain on holiday have to get their fingerprints taken at one of 12 authorities in China. They also have to fill out a lengthy application form and pay more than if they were to visit the Schengen area of 26 European countries.
Visa red tape and cost are putting off Chinese visitors – not APD or a lack of runways
Pamphlet: Chinese Checkers
It is only in recent months the myth has been fully exposed. The myth that it is not the lack
of a third runway at Heathrow which is stopping Chinese business people from investing in
Britain and deterring Chinese tourists visiting Britain in the same numbers they flock to
France and Germany. It has slowly emerged that the difficulty of getting a visa is much
more of a deterrent.