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BHA chair Nick Varney laments visa policy for Chinese tourists

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British efforts to court Chinese tourism through a major Shanghai business festival launched by Prince William are missing the point in terms of what needs to be done to attract Chinese visitors.

That is the view of new BHA chair Nick Varney, who said that posters in China promoting British destinations are irrelevant when the UK’s visa policy makes it so hard for Chinese visitors to get there.

The GREAT Festival of Creativity in Shanghai has been running this week, a partnership between the UK government and private sector to boost British penetration in fast-growing Chinese markets. Prince William opened the event on Monday evening (2 March), while brands such as British Airways, Jaguar Land Rover, PwC and BBC Worldwide are sponsors. Tourism is high on the agenda, with the VisitBritain-led GREAT Britain marketing campaign featuring prominently in a bid to lure visitors from the rapidly expanding Chinese outbound tourism market.

However, Varney, who is also the CEO of attractions giant Merlin Entertainments, believes the marketing campaign is ultimately futile due to the current policy on visas for Chinese visitors.

“I actually think it’s not a tourism campaign. It’s a corporate Britain branding campaign, as far as I can see,” said Varney, quoted in the Financial Times.

He added that branding Britain may be useful for attracting inward investment, “but if you are saying that a poster at Shanghai Airport saying ‘Britain is Great’ is going to get Chinese people to come to the UK for their holiday when actually the main barrier... is an overly expensive and overly complicated and onerous visa application process, then you’re not running an integrated tourism strategy.”

Inbound visitor numbers to Britain from overseas have consistently risen in recent years and hit new highs in 2014.

But despite the positive figures, there was one area for concern. Visits from China – a market that VisitBritain has been targeting with a number of tourism initiatives – fell 7 per cent year-on-year, according to International Passenger Survey statistics.

One well-placed industry observer told Leisure Opportunities that the drop, coming at a time when the Chinese outbound tourism market continues to grow, suggests the government’s visa policy is in need of a revamp.

In response to Varney’s comments, a government spokesperson pointed to the overall tourism figures as evidence that the UK’s tourism strategy is on track. They added that it is “nonsense” to suggest the strategy isn’t working, and cited chancellor George Osborne’s recent Chinese visa refund announcement as evidence of efforts to boost numbers.

Tourism is expected to be a key battleground in the forthcoming general election, which takes place on 7 May 2015. Some of the key issues tourism businesses would like to see addressed in the party manifestos include support measures for seaside and rural tourism businesses, plans for increasing the UK’s airport capacity, considerations over the Cut Tourism VAT Campaign and whether there will be any further reforms to the Air Passenger Duty (APD).

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British efforts to court Chinese tourism through a major Shanghai business festival launched by Prince William are missing the point in terms of what needs to be done to attract Chinese visitors.
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BHA chair Nick Varney believes the marketing campaign in China is ultimately futile due to the current policy on visas for Chinese visitors
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