The UK is high up in the list of places that the Chinese want to visit – but at the moment it’s often not worth the hassle
Chinese tourists are much in demand these days – not least among Britain’s government. The reasons for this are obvious: Chinese visitors tend to spend on average three times more than other overseas visitors, yet at the moment France receives 25-30% more visitors than Britain. This is why a division appears to be emerging within the government, with culture secretary Jeremy Hunt trying to make it easier for Chinese tourists to obtain visas, while home secretary Theresa May has been blocking such changes.
In principle, Britain should be a major destination for Chinese tourists. Britain has an unparalleled reputation for goods that are considered to be much higher quality than those made in China, and often cheaper. British brands such as Burberry and Clarks shoes are notoriously famous in China for their style and craftsmanship..
The UK is high up in the list of places that the Chinese want to visit; lagging behind the US, the dreamland of opportunities, but often ahead of the rest of Europe. There is a sense of mystery about the UK: it’s often the images of England’s green parks, countryside and Victorian houses that people point to as an alternative to polluted, overcrowded cities such as Beijing and Guangzhou.
The capital is viewed as modern and dynamic, while being ingrained with history. When asked what other images are conjured up by the UK, the reply is often “the Queen, tea and Oxbridge”. This strong cultural identity is something the Chinese admire, particularly after much of its own was destroyed during the shambolic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
So what’s stopping them actually coming? Sebastian Wood, the British ambassador in Beijing, has described the UK as a “fortress”, and while this is perhaps an exaggeration, Britain does have a reputation as a country that is harder to access.
The main problem for Chinese tourists is a matter of logistics – the UK is not included in the Schengen visa, which allows access to a host of European countries such as France and Germany. What this means is that an entirely separate process is required to gain entry into the UK. Although an overhaul earlier this year means that visa applications are now completed online, visitors are still required to visit one of 12 UK centres across the country for a face-to-face interview and fingerprinting. If you don’t live near one of these centres already, you’d have to travel some distance to get there.
Another problem is that Chinese people want to visit more than one country if they are going to make it all the way out to Europe – travel abroad for leisure is still a relatively new concept, so many want to cover as much ground as possible. Going to the extra trouble of seeing a country the size of a large province in China (of which there are 33), when the Schengen visa will get you into 26 countries, makes the former seem a less worth it.
There is also the issue of cost: £47 for a Schengen visa, £82 for the UK. On top of this, the UK is viewed as stricter in its handling of visas compared with the rest of Europe, fed by urban legends of rejected applications. In the end, the decision comes down to one question: is Britain worth the hassle?
What can the government do about this? Yes, make the application process more user-friend, less costly and soften border barriers without breaching national security – after all, there are a lot of people in China, most not looking to contribute to the UK’s GDP.
But what the UK government should realise also is that much of the power lies in the hands of Chinese travel agents and middlemen who arrange visits abroad and have considerable influence on visas applications. It needs to think seriously about this lot before implementing any wild ideas for getting the Chinese over to part with their money.
The British are sometimes seen as conservative and more rain-stricken than its American or Australian counterparts, but that’s easily solved: surprisingly perhaps, the Chinese love the British royal family. For many in China, the royals are a reminder of their own imperial rule that collapsed at the beginning of the 20th century: both curiosity and envy play a role. So just get Will and Kate on a plane to Beijing to shake a few Chinese hands.
Oh, and inviting the Dalai Lama over for tea at No 10 on a near annual basis is probably not the best way to bring in this patriotic bunch. But I guess that’s what makes the British British.
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