EU immigration may dominate headlines in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, but Willie Walsh, the boss of British Airways owner IAG, hit the nail on the head yesterday when he wrote to home secretary Amber Rudd to ask her to chivvy along changes to Chinese visas.
It was way back in 2015 that then-Prime Minister David Cameron assured his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, that the UK will look to introduce a 10-year multiple entry visa for visitors from China. Since then, we have heard nothing, Walsh complained. This is despite government talk of 'global Britain.'
China is becoming an increasingly important nation for British exporters. UK exports to China were worth £16.8bn in 2016, making it the UK’s eighth biggest market.
Meanwhile, its inhabitants are prolific tourists: they spent $261.1bn (£186bn) abroad last year according to the World Tourism Organisation, more than twice the next-biggest spenders, US tourists, who forked out a mere $123.6bn. According to figures from 2015, tourists from China spend £500m a year on these green and sceptred isles – and that is without a royal wedding on the cards.
Yet tourists from China, not to mention those wishing to build business relationships here, are still forced to spend a whopping £767 if they wish to come to the UK multiple times over 10 years. That is compared with £119 for a visa to the US and €99 (£87) for a visa to the Schengen area, which represents a particularly good bargain when you consider it offers access to 26 countries. The result is that France, Germany, Italy and Spain between them issued 1.5m visas to Chinese tourists last year. The UK issued just 480,000, according to Walsh.
Over the weekend the City of London Corporation called for a pragmatic approach to immigration from the EU – but that pragmatism should extend way beyond the continent, and to increasingly important partners, such as India and China. Theresa May’s rumoured trip to Beijing at the end of this month is an opportunity to finish what Cameron started, and make it easier for tourists to come to the UK. In the face of concerns about Brexit, such a move would be an easy way to assure vital partners that the UK is open and ready to do business.