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How welcoming is Britain?

Mark Easton | 16:12 UK time, Thursday, 12 August 2010

David Cameron today demanded that officials make it easier for foreigners to get visas to come to Britain. This, of course, is the same David Cameron who recently demanded that officials make it more difficult for foreigners to get visas to come to Britain.

Samantha and David CameronIt all depends on the kind of visa and the kind of foreigner.

The so-called immigration cap announced in June is aimed at reducing the number of foreigners being given work visas.

Today's announcement is about increasing the number of foreigners being given tourist visas. The word the government wants to send out is that Britain welcomes visitors who come to spend but not migrants who come to work.

The problem is that it is a mixed message and, as the prime minister said in his speech on boosting our tourism industry this morning, "it's a question of perception".

Mr Cameron said he was determined "to remove some of the obstacles that put people off coming here" and wanted "to improve the local delivery of visa services in key markets like China and India".

Interesting that he should mention India, of course, given the concerns that the Indian Commerce minister, Anand Sharma recently expressed in Downing Street about the "adverse effect" on relations with Britain of the new restrictions on work visas.

The prime minister is clearly aware of the huge benefits to UK plc from overseas visitors. "Tourism contributes £115bn to our economy every year" he pointed out. "It employs nearly 10% of our national workforce."

"We've just not been working hard enough to celebrate our country and home and sell our country abroad. Huge opportunities are being missed."

One of the keys to a successful tourist industry is that visitors are made to feel welcome. There are concerns, though, that in vital markets immigration controls aimed at long-term migrants are making holiday-makers and other short-term visitors think that the UK doesn't really want them.

Since the last government started introducing much tougher visa controls there has been a big drop in people coming to visit Britain. The number of visitor visas issued has fallen from 1.92m in 2006-7 to 1.67m in 2008-9.

In other words, a quarter of a million fewer travellers came to spend their cash in the United Kingdom than had done two years earlier.

Visitors from six countries currently require a visa to enter the UK for a visit of under six months duration: China, India, UAE, Thailand, Russia and most recently South Africa.

According to research by VisitBritain [2.11MB PDF], when it comes to the "welcome" potential tourists think they will get from a country, "39% of online respondents from China, Russia, and India perceive some difficulty in getting a visa to visit Britain".

The survey also found people are "far more likely to agree (49%) than disagree (16%) that getting a visa to visit Britain is expensive" and a substantial minority (42%) "agreed that the cost and trouble of getting a British visa means that they are more likely to holiday elsewhere."

Visa perceptions

The cost of a tourist visa to the UK has risen to £68, significantly more expensive than the £45 for visa to all the EU countries in the Schengen group.

A Chinese travel agent told VisitBritain that the need for a separate British visa when coming to Europe "seriously undermines" the United Kingdom's attractiveness as a destination.

"The UK visa policy is too strict and the cost of travelling to the UK is too high (1.5 times that of France). These two factors make travel agents unwilling to put much effort into promoting the UK."

However, there is an even greater factor which relates directly to efforts Britain has made to tighten its borders. The research in China found that the biggest issue for potential tourists "is not the cost of visas but the risk of being rejected".

VisitBritain's report concludes that, for the Chinese, "a black mark / rejection stamp in a passport is a worse situation than never having applied for the visa in the first place" and so the tough reputation of UK immigration officials may directly impact on people considering coming here as tourists.

Mr Cameron today spelled out the value associated with Chinese visitors. "We're their 22nd most popular destination" he said. "But Germany is forecast to break into their top 10. Why can't we?"

"Currently we only have 0.5% of the market share of Chinese tourists. If we could increase that to just 2.5% this could add over half a billion pounds of spending to our economy and some sources suggest this could mean as many as 10,000 new jobs."

So there is a difficult balancing act to be achieved. The government knows that making the UK appear welcoming to tourists with wads of travellers cheques has significant economic benefits, but worries that appearing welcoming to other foreigners may have negative repercussions.

An annual poll, the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index, measures the power and appeal of a nation's brand image. As part of the survey, respondents were asked to state how far they agreed with the following sentence: "If I visited this country, they would make me feel very welcome."

Perceptions of welcome

Only half of those asked (51%) agreed that the UK would make them feel very welcome, a result which put Britain in 14th equal place internationally. As the prime minister put it in his speech this morning: "Quite frankly, right now, we're just not doing enough to make the most of our tourism."


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