London retailers keen to lure wealthy tourists from other European capitals have welcomed an £8m government campaign to treble the number of Chinese visitors to the UK over the next three years as part of a post-Olympics tourism “turbo charge”.
Jeremy Hunt, culture secretary, announced the new spending while lamenting that the UK was falling behind France and Germany in attracting Chinese tourists. He urged Britain to get on the “front foot”.
“Nobody should underestimate the opportunity China and its cities represent,” Mr Hunt said. “By 2030, China should have around 1.4bn middle class consumers – creating a potential market four times bigger than America.” France is currently attracting 25 to 50 per cent more Chinese visitors than the UK.
Michael Ward, the managing director of Harrods in Knightsbridge, told the Financial Times he was “delighted” with the culture secretary’s scheme – which aims to bring 500,000 Chinese visitors a year into the country by 2015, leading to an estimated £569m of additional spending and creating 14,000 more jobs.
“Chinese customers represent a rapidly growing market for us, and we have already put in such measures as Mandarin-speaking staff, terminals to take the Chinese payment card of choice, and marketing strategies in the region,” Mr Ward said.
Guy Salter, deputy chairman of Walpole, the British consortium of luxury brands, described the initiative as “very positive indeed”, but pointed out that London’s luxury retailers are not just looking for an increase in overall visitors but also a rise in the number of wealthy customers.
“What we’re interested in are the higher spending visitors, and France gets more than we do – by quite a margin,” Mr Salter said.
Chinese tourists are particularly valuable given that their holiday spending is three times the global average, with an outlay of £1,677 each per visit, according to 2010 figures from Visit Britain, the national tourism agency .
Mr Hunt said that as part of the strategy, the government would work with airlines and aviation authorities to increase the number of direct UK flights from Chinese cities outside Beijing and Shanghai, and tackle the lack of connections.
Germany, for example, has flights from smaller Chinese cities such as Nanjing, and major routes fly to Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin. Germany listed a possible 4,600 flights to China in 2011, while the UK had only 1,500.
But UK business groups and aerospace industry figures complained that despite the government’s laudable ideals, the country’s high air passenger duties and a complicated visa system – which is harder to grasp than the EU’s passport-free Schengen travel zone – are deterring potential visitors.
“For the UK to succeed in these growth-supporting aims we urgently need a strategy for increasing air capacity in London … and action on visa requirements,” said Michael Rooney, chief operating officer at London First, the business lobby group. “We need real action on both, not just words.”
Simon Buck, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association, added it was all very well to call for new direct services to China, but more needed to be done.
“Spending more money on marketing Britain to the world is welcome, but that in itself won’t do anything to address the barriers of tax and airport capacity shortages that the UK faces,” Mr Buck said.
When asked whether the government would consider relaxing visa rules, Mr Hunt said that maintaining border security was paramount. However, he said he would look at ways that UK visa applications could be part of a “parallel process” alongside getting a visa for the Schengen area.
Get alerts on Beijing when a new story is published