Skip to main content

Tourism: Chinese Visitors

Volume 740: debated on Monday 12 November 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage Chinese visitors to the United Kingdom.

I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as the chairman of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions.

China is a priority tourism market. Compared with five years ago, there has been a 39% increase in visitor numbers from China, a 111% increase in nights they spend in the UK, and a 97% increase in their expenditure while they are here. VisitBritain is investing more than £125 million in a major four-year international promotional campaign in key overseas markets. The Government also recently announced additional funds for the GREAT campaign to drive trade and tourism from China. We are making the visa application process more user-friendly for Chinese visitors.

My Lords, that is all very well, but at present a potential visitor from China must fill in a 30-page visa application form in English and find £650 for a family of four in visa fees and air passenger duty. Is it therefore surprising that mainland Europe gets four times as many visitors from China as we do? I know that my noble friend is a great supporter of tourism. He led the last tourism debate in your Lordships’ House. However, when are the Government going to take tourism seriously? When are they going to fund VisitBritain properly, realise that its chairmanship is not a two-days-per-week job, and bring tourism into the title of DCMS? Is it not time that we had a national champion for tourism? Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Coe, could take that on as part of his Olympic legacy.

We must do all that we can to keep visa application costs down, even though research backed by the tourism industry shows that visa costs and indeed the process for applying are not a significant barrier to in-bound Chinese tourists. It is true that the cost of a UK short-term visa is £78. A Schengen visa is less, at £50, although this cost is expected to increase when the biometric capture is included in the near future. A UK visa has biometric capture, which we regard as important for our security. It is worth pointing out that by 2030 China will have 1.4 billion middle-income consumers. There is therefore a great opportunity for us all to capture some of this market in the future.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that comparing the whole of Schengen—more than 20 member states—with one country here and saying that their visa costs are a bit lower is not really the answer? Once one has bought a Schengen visa, one can go around all these states; just one visa is needed. Worse still, to get a visa to come to this country, Chinese people must give up their ID cards for eight weeks, I believe, which is quite serious. Is there not more that the Government could do to rebalance the problems of coming here compared with going to the continent?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. I can reassure him that much is being done as we debate on this issue. I am not in a position to give any more details than that. However, we are aware that tourism in the UK is the fifth biggest industry and the third highest export earner, generating £115 billion in direct and indirect business for the economy and supporting 200,000 jobs. There is therefore much to bear in mind when we look at streamlining and sorting out the issues.

My Lords, is it not a fact that tourism from China is a fraction of what it could be? One way of dealing with this is to waive visas for trusted Chinese tour groups, which are already closely controlled through the bilateral approved destination status agreement between China and Great Britain.

I cannot comment on my noble friend’s suggestion but it is possible that that is being looked at as well, as part of a review that is going on. Again, I am not in a position to give any more information on that.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the severe damage being done to British universities and larger long-term British interests by the heavy restrictions on those Chinese visitors known as students? Does he realise that Leeds University, of which I am chancellor, is only one of the many universities in the UK that are suffering financially every year—and in the long term massively—through these ridiculous, unfair and unbelievable restrictions on Chinese students as well as Chinese visitors?

The noble Lord makes a point about Chinese students; the Question relates more to Chinese tourism. But, having said that, it is very important indeed that we encourage all Chinese citizens to come to Britain, whether they are students or tourists. There is much going on in terms of marketing Britain abroad to China. VisitBritain has a £100 million marketing fund, jointly funded by the DCMS and the private sector. To answer the noble Lord’s question to this extent, it is particularly important that we improve the perceptions of the UK. By that, we should improve digital marketing, invest in trade engagement and improve the packaging and promotion of the UK to Chinese visitors.

My Lords, is the recently announced increase in the visas for these Chinese visitors not at the expense of visitors from the Indian subcontinent?