Britain on Monday announced it would ease access to visas for Chinese tourists and business people ahead of a visit by Premier Li Keqiang aimed at strengthening ties.
The announcement kicks off a three-day visit by Li during which Britain aims to strengthen trade ties and warm a relationship strained by a spat over Tibet.
The changes include a single visa to allow Chinese and Indian tourists to travel to both Ireland and Britain, and a simplified online application form for independent travellers.
Britain is also in talks with European partners to allow Chinese visitors to apply for visas for Britain and Europe’s 26-country Schengen area through a single application process, following a last year pilot programme with tour operators which sped up applications.
The current requirement to apply separately has been blamed for encouraging Chinese tourists to plan multi-stop trips in the Schengen area – which extends from Finland to Portugal and includes France, Italy and Spain – but skip the additional work required to visit Britain.
The moves are likely to please retailers keen to attract Chinese shoppers, who are the world’s biggest spenders on luxury goods by nationality but do two-thirds of their luxury spending abroad, where high-end items are cheaper, according to Bain & Company consultants.
Katja Hall, Deputy Director-General of lobby group the Confederation of British Industry, praised the move, saying deeper links with China were of “critical importance to our economic future.”
“A well-functioning work permit and visa system is vital to ensuring that the UK is a vibrant hub for international trade, visitors and students,” she added.
“The new streamlined visa service for all Chinese visitors will help send out a clear message that the UK is open for business and welcoming to top global talent.”
Britain opted out of membership of the Schengen area in order to maintain control of its borders, and Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed for tighter restrictions on movement within the European Union as part of a bid to cap immigration, a touchstone issue for his coalition government.
“Having a visa system is vital to protecting Britain’s borders and we won’t relinquish control of them by joining Schengen,” Britain’s Home Secretary Theresa May said in a statement.
“But I want to make sure they are as efficient as possible in welcoming tourists and business people from around the world.”
The introduction of a priority visa service and the opening of 12 visa application centres across China had contributed to a increase of nearly 40 per cent in the number of visas issued to Chinese visitors between 2012 and last year, the Home Office said.