Reforms to the UK visa system have been welcomed, but must be streamlined further if retailers are to benefit from an estimated annual £1.2bn windfall from fashion-hungry Chinese tourists, the industry has warned.
Home secretary Theresa May announced on June 16 that from this summer, Chinese tourists will be able to apply for visas to the UK and the 26 Schengen countries using one form – rather than two separate forms – for the first time. However, they will still need to submit a copy of the form to two different processing centres: one for the UK and one for the Schengen countries.
The change comes as the Home Office seeks to boost the number of Chinese tourists visiting the UK alongside trips to the Schengen area, comprised of 26 European nations that have abolished inter-border passport controls. Last year, 1.4 million Chinese tourists visited Schengen countries compared with 291,000 who visited the UK.
According to UK China Visa Alliance (UKCVA), which was set up by businesses to campaign for visa reforms, the move could boost the UK economy by £1.2bn annually, with fashion retailers likely to benefit.
However, John Lewis retail director and UKCVA chairman Andrew Murphy told Drapers the reforms did not go far enough. He said the introduction of a single form was a step in the right direction, but joint processing centres would be needed to simplify the process further.
“We want to make sure the government follows through with this initial step, but we need the dial to move profoundly,” he said.
He added he would like to see the application process promoted as a “UK and Schengen visa” package to boost uptake.
Ian Colquhoun, director of Bond Street Agencies, which oversees distribution for menswear brands including Truzzi, Police and Cerruti, said more needs to be done because Chinese shoppers “and their penchant for high-end goods will have a trickle-down benefit for all the premium brands and agents like us”, although he added it would take time.
Richard Dickinson, chief executive of New West End Company, which represents 600 retailers on Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street in London, agreed: ”Anything that increases Chinese visitors is welcome, as they spend 10 times that of the average Londoner – but there is more to do.
“We are not where we would like to be, but technology can help. We need to modernise the process and secure agreements between governments to make it happen.”
A spokeswoman for designer outlet group Value Retail, which owns Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and actively markets the location in China, said: “Anything the government can do to make it easier for Chinese visitors to come to Britain is to be welcomed.
“Competition generated by other countries for Chinese visitors, however, means we need more and better ways to attract tourists if Britain is to continue improving visitor numbers from these key markets.”