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Is Britain Open For Business? Visitor Queues and Visitor Visas

altOn Tuesday May 15th at 11.00 am the UK’s Immigration Minister, Damian Green, appeared before the British parliament’s Home Affairs Committee to answer questions about queues at passport control in Heathrow Airport.

Simultaneously, the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA) released a statement pointing out that the problems created by UK Border Agency at Heathrow, whilst bad for Britain’s image and economically damaging, should be viewed in the wider context of the problems caused by issuing visas.

Research conducted by ETOA reveals that hundreds of millions of pounds are lost to the UK economy every year because the visa process is so alienating that applicants give up and decide to go elsewhere.

- The UK tourist visa costs £78, which currently offers two countries: the UK and, courtesy of a recent waiver scheme, Ireland. The Schengen visa costs €60 and offers 26 countries.
- The Schengen visa application form is three pages long; that for the UK is eight pages.
- The UK visa form has to be completed in English. The Chinese do not require their visa forms to be completed in Chinese characters; the Russians do not insist on Cyrillic
- Prospective visitors have to submit fingerprints as well as a photo, make themselves available for an interview at a location that can be hundreds of miles from where they live. They may have to wait for as long as three weeks for a decision
- ETOA’s survey of travel agents and tour operators showed that 26% of Indian and 30% of Chinese clients applying for UK visas gave up rather than endure this time consuming and humiliating application.
- France now attracts over 50% more visitors from India than the UK.
- In 2009, Switzerland joined the Schengen Area. Indian visitor arrivals were at 132,000 in 2008, by 2010 they stood at 197,000; this was growth of 49%. In the same period, the UK numbers rose from 359,000 to 371,000: a growth rate of 3%.
- Since the UK introduced visas for South Africans in 2009, visitor numbers have declined by 24%. In the same year visas were abolished for Taiwanese travelling to the UK. Visitor numbers have since increased by 39% and revenue by 155%.
- Visit Britain’s figures show that just 3% of Chinese visitors to Europe in 2010 obtained a UK visa, 2% obtained both UK and Schengen visas and 95% obtained just a Schengen visa

Tom Jenkins, Executive Director of ETOA said, “Images of queues at Heathrow damage the UK; they make the prospect of a visit here tiresome and unattractive. The damage done by this is major, but is short term: it can be fixed quickly. The damage done by our visa regime takes place thousands of miles away, where the clients are, in the origin markets. These markets, such as India, China and Indonesia, are of enormous long term importance to our strategic growth as a destination. They are being lost.

The current government is making efforts to improve the speed and experience of obtaining a UK visa. Given the benefits to jobs and investment, this should have the highest priority.”

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