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July 26, 2013 8:36 pm
Britain is pressing ahead with its trial of a scheme to make visitors from six countries pay a £3,000 bond, despite an international backlash and complaints from businesses.
The government said it would begin a pilot in November to impose visa restrictions on six Commonwealth nations, including India and Nigeria, even though David Cameron poured cold water on the scheme in June after it provoked uproar in Delhi.
Luxury goods retailers have denounced the plan as an “insulting deterrent” to wealthy tourists, which will hit sales and damage London’s reputation. They are urging the government to drop the pilot, saying the restrictions will damage their business if Commonwealth tourists – particularly Nigerians, now the sixth biggest spenders on luxury goods in the UK – are put off.
“It’s embarrassing that our country would consider these measures against visitors who spend so much in our stores,” said Michael Ward, managing director of Harrods. “There seems to be a deeply frustrating attitude in Westminster that they should do whatever they can to actively prevent people coming to the UK.”
Julia Carrick, chief executive of Walpole, the luxury goods consortium, said: “We should be welcoming these lucrative visitors from Nigeria – not putting up barriers to entry.”
The domestic backlash against tourist bonds comes on the heels of an international outcry when it emerged that the government was planning to demand a migrant bond from “high-risk” overseas visitors.
Delhi’s anger at the proposals spurred Mr Cameron into action, with the prime minister insisting he would not sanction a policy that undermined efforts to boost trade links with India.
Aides stressed at the time that Mr Cameron “had not signed off” details, and Downing Street appeared to put the scheme into the deep freeze.
However, the Home Office will launch the pilot just as the Christmas shopping season begins.
Some visitors from India, Nigeria, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh will be asked to pay a cash bond in return for visitor visas that allow them to stay in the UK for up to six months. According to official data, these six countries accounted for more than half a million visa applications in 2012.
The Home Office said on Friday that only individuals deemed “high-risk” would be asked to pay the bond. But some officials admit that the mere mention of a bond will be enough to deter visitors.
A fall in Nigerian tourists is of particular concern to stores such as Harrods – given their big spending power.
Biola Dosumu, a Nigerian browsing in the Harrods beauty hall this week, said the bond would discourage visitors. “Make no mistake, no one is interested in immigration hassle – if things get tougher, the Nigerians will definitely go elsewhere – over to Europe or perhaps to the US.”
The Nigerian government has expressed its “strong displeasure” about the plans, and has asked Britain to reconsider the policy.
A Home Office official said: “In the long run, we are interested in a system of bonds that deters overstaying and recovers costs if a foreign national has used our public services.”
The department was embroiled in another immigration controversy this week after it sent vans around London carrying billboards telling illegal immigrants to “go home or face arrests”.
The pilot scheme, trialled in six London boroughs with high levels of illegal immigrants, was denounced as “nasty” by Nigel Farage, Ukip leader.
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