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The UK’s fastest growing tourist group endures the slowest visa process

  • David Yanofsky
By David Yanofsky

Editor of code, visuals, and data

UKPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The Financial Times reports that France gets 25% more Chinese tourists than the UK (paywall). British retailers are upset. They claim that the visa process for Chinese nationals is too burdensome. Some have gone so far as to say that the system treats Chinese like criminals.

The Home Office—the UK’s interior ministry—refutes the criticisms, claiming 96% of Chinese visa applications are approved and most are processed in 15 days. Immigration minister Mark Harper said in a statement, “China is a priority market for the UK and we have already made a number of improvements to the service we offer to legitimate Chinese visitors.”

The row over Chinese tourism is a fight for the travelers’ wallets. Chinese tourists on holiday in Britain spent £1,268 per visit in 2012 according to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Only tourists from the UAE, Egypt, and South Africa spend more per trip. The ONS measured Chinese tourists’ total spending at £111,536,333 in 2012.

But while the Chinese are spending a lot of pounds per trip, they’re not making as many visits to the UK as other countries’ tourists. The French, Germans and Americans were the most frequent visitors to the UK in 2012, unsurprising considering Europe’s proximity and the “special relationship.” But it also had more visits from Japan, India and Russia than from much larger China.

Since 2010 the Chinese have increased their visits to the UK by 161% and their spending by 125%—the largest growth of any nation’s travelers for either measure. And that’s been during an overall decline in tourism to the UK, with the total number of visits falling 3% in the same period and spending down 14%.

The UK’s visa procedures are very similar to those for getting a Schengen visa, which covers 26 European nations—an area that spans all the EU members (except the UK and Ireland), Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.

To get a Schengen visa, Chinese tourists must provide five documents (pdf) to the consular offices of the member nation they intend to visit first: a flight reservation, their hukou (a Chinese identity document), proof of accommodation, a travel itinerary, and proof of financial solvency.

The UK system recommends, but does not mandate (pdf), four “key documents” be submitted: hukou, a travel itinerary, evidence of employment, and evidence of financial solvency. Before a visa is issued the UK requires Chinese nationals to submit to a biometric screening including a photographic and finger scan.

Though China is viewed by many nations (the UK included) as the world’s top “superpower,” both the British and Schengen visa systems are substantially more burdensome to Chinese than to Americans, citizens of the world’s other choice for superpower. All a US traveler needs to get a visa in Europe is show a valid passport upon arrival.

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