The owner of London's biggest casino raised the stakes in the row over tough British visa rules for high-rolling Chinese tourists yesterday by launching a scathing attack on the government's "outdated" view of China.
Simon Thomas, the chief executive and co-owner of the Hippodrome in the West End, claimed London was missing out on millions of pounds because Chinese visitors to Europe have to fill out a separate visa forms for Britain.
"The current visa system is bureaucratic madness. Chinese tourists can fill out a relatively simple form to get a Schengen visa for 26 European countries, yet have an incredibly complicated process to get a UK visa, so many of them don't bother," he told the South China Morning Post.
Quoting recent reports, Mr Thomas said the rigid system was costing tourism "four to five million pounds a day" in lost income.
"It's a competitive world and we need to compete. The UK had 180,000 Chinese tourists last year. France had well over a million," he said.
"I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy."
Mr Thomas is among a growing chorus of dismayed businesses leaders.
Luxury retailers favoured by cash-rich, brand-inspired Chinese tourists have formed the UK China Visa Alliance (UKCVA), a pressure group to lobby the government to allow easier access by overhauling the bureaucratic and expensive visa process.
"Currently, Chinese have to apply for two visas to visit Europe and the UK, but only 7 per cent of the huge number coming to Europe bother to do so. We want a system where the UK issues a visa at the same time as the Schengen," a spokesman said.
Obtaining a UK visa often involves long trips for Chinese tourists to consulates, where they have to fill out English-only forms and pay high tariffs.
The Home Office, Britain's interior ministry, said it was "listening to concerns" and said in recent months it had streamlined the process.
"Our Chinese visa system provides an excellent service and we will make further improvements wherever possible, but we will not compromise the security of our border," immigration minister Mark Harper said.
A new "passport pass-back" scheme allowed Chinese to keep their passport while their British visa was being processed so they could apply for another visa at the same time, and visa office opening hours were being extended, a government spokeswoman said.
"Our next big change is offering the visa forms in [Putonghua]. We are listening to the business community and we are helping. But we will not lose control over our borders, which is what would happen under the Schengen system. We will never join it," she said.
A UKCVA spokesman welcomed the changes. "But Chinese tourists or tour operators still have to make two trips and fill out two forms to come to the UK when in Europe. We want it so they can do both at the same time." the spokesman said.
Frustration in London's Chinese community, many of whose members run restaurants and other businesses used by Chinese tourists, is also mounting.
Last month Yu Ningning, the president of China International Travel Service (CITS), warned that Britain was losing business "every minute" because of its "complicated and expensive" visa system.
She said she avoided bringing large groups of tourists to Britain because they found it easier to go to European countries covered by the single Schengen visa.
Yu's company runs 800 travel agencies with a customer base of 3.23 million, but brings fewer than 10,000 tourists to Britain a year.
"If I want to send 1,000 people to the UK I have to send buses [to a visa processing centre]. This is really causing problems. Every minute you are losing business," she said.
Yu said improvements announced last year by the Home Office had made little difference in persuading tour companies to include Britain on travel itineraries.
Thomas said France's immigration checks offered sufficient security and greater changes were "urgently" needed in Britain.
"The British government's dithering over streamlining the visa application is pathetic. "