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Visas: Chinese Visitors

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the effect of current visa restrictions on visitors from China to the United Kingdom for tourism and commerce.

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

There has been continued and significant growth in Chinese visitors coming to the UK, demonstrating that we support growth through the visa system. In 2012, UKBA processed almost 300,000 visa applications from Chinese nationals, and the number of visas issued to Chinese nationals increased by 7% in the year to December 2012.

The reality is that between 2004 and 2011, while the United States saw a growth in Chinese visitors of over 400%, we managed just over 50%. Overall, the United Kingdom’s share of Chinese tourism has declined by one-third during the past 10 years.

Turning to non-tourism activities, is the Minister aware that, for example in our superyacht-building sector, the chief executive of the British Marine Federation said recently:

“Chinese tourist restrictions are a straitjacket on the UK marine industry which is harming businesses, sapping the economy, and costing local jobs”.

The president of Sunseeker said:

“Sunseeker’s Chinese clients and potential buyers are having extreme difficulty in obtaining a visa to visit the UK, being laborious at best and often declined”.

When is the Home Office going to get real and stop disadvantaging UK tourism and UK commerce?

My Lords, my noble friend is quite right to exhort us to greater effort, but he should be well aware of the work that is being done through our network of BritAgents throughout China and indeed our partnership with British Airways, which is opening a new route from Chengdu to London this year. This partnership and the way in which we are building our relationship with Chinese visitors are proving successful. Indeed, the most recent International Passenger Survey data revealed a 24% increase in the number of Chinese visitors in 2012 compared with 2011.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the most recent World Economic Forum analysis of tourism competitiveness showed that Britain’s visa regime has gone from 22nd to 46th? Not only that, we are 139th out of 140 for the charges at our airports and on tickets because of our old friend air passenger duty. Last week, we had the debacle around Brazilian visas added to the current difficulties with Chinese visas. There are people out there desperate to come to Britain. They spent £18.7 billion in Britain last year, 4% more than the year before. Why are we making it so difficult for them?

I am afraid that I cannot agree with the noble Baroness. She paints a pretty dismal picture, but I do not recognise that from the reality. Of the applicants for visas, 97% are processed within 15 days and of those, 96% are successful. Having sought the opinion of Chinese visitors, 90% are very satisfied with the service provided by the visa service.

My Lords, I have just completed an extended tour of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, where I have a manufacturing interest. Is the Minister not aware that there is a lot of resentment and disappointment with this country because of the difficulty with visas? It is also affecting inward investment to this country. Is he aware of that? It is affecting the number of students who are coming here. Students are going to Australia and America instead. This thing is real, as the noble Lord, Lord Lee of Trafford, has said. Will something be done about it?

We are trying to make the visa application process as customer-friendly as we can. The form itself is available in Chinese so that applicants can complete it in Chinese and online. We are dealing with a real issue. Either we have visa controls or we do not. I am sure that this House would not suggest to Her Majesty’s Government that we drop visa controls. Indeed, we review visa controls, but for China we require them. The most important thing is that we have a system in place that reflects the interests of this country in protecting its borders and the interests of those who want to come here. They will be welcome for business, tourism and indeed for study.

In his first Answer to my noble friend Lord Lee, the Minister gave statistics for the number of visas issued. To what extent was that split between those from Hong Kong and those from mainland China?

My Lords, I am disappointed that the Minister sounds extraordinarily complacent on this issue. He has heard from all sides of the House that there is a serious problem, and it is not the case that people are saying there should be no visas. It seems that we are making matters extraordinarily difficult for people from China and, as we have heard, from Brazil who would contribute to the economy of this country. Does the Home Office or any other part of government undertake an economic assessment of the impact these visa regulations are having?

My Lords, there are no visas for Brazil, and there is no plan to introduce them. That decision was made last week, and an announcement was made to that effect.

I am not complacent about this issue. I see the enormous potential of tourism and commercial links with China. I think it is a very important area of activity. However, as I explained in my answers to noble Lords, we need to maintain a visa system for our own border security. Having decided that we need to put one into place, and I am very pleased to hear that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, agrees with that decision, the task is to try to make sure that the processing is as straightforward and easy as possible.

I have given illustrations of the figures. We should talk in figures and not in speculation. I have given the figures that 97% of visa applications are processed within 15 days and that our charge of £81 compares with the £126 it costs a UK citizen for a visa to go to China. We try to keep our service as competitive as possible, and it is right to do so.