UK must 'look at Chinese visa issue' – Airline boss

Willie Walsh, the chief executive of International Airlines Group, has said that the UK's visa regime is damaging trade and tourism with China.

Mr Walsh told The Guardian newspaper 'The government talks a good talk about wanting to do business in China but, if they're going to translate that into real opportunity, they're going to have to look more closely at the visa issue'.

International Airlines Group is the parent company for British Airways and the Spanish carrier Iberia. Mr Walsh was speaking to journalists on the first ever British Airways flight from London's Heathrow airport direct to Chengdu, the capital of China's south western Sichuan Province.

Several factors prevented BA from flying to China

Mr Walsh said that British Airways had been slow to tap into the Chinese market because of several factors. He said that the limited availability of slots at Heathrow had prevented BA from flying to Chengdu and added that the UK's passenger duty tended to reduce demand from China. It adds £83 ($133) to every flight to China.

But he said that the biggest problem for the UK was the UK's restrictive and expensive visa regime. He said that Chinese visitors were 'bypassing' the UK because it is so hard and expensive to get a UK visa. He said that it costs £56 ($90) to get a visa for the EU's Schengen Area and £80 ($128) to get one for the UK.

The Schengen Area consists of 26 European countries. EU citizens and many others in the EU with visas may travel freely within the Schengen Area 'without being subjected to border checks'. Four more eastern European countries will join the Schengen Area when concerns about border security and corruption have been addressed.

UK visas harder to get than Schengen ones

Other critics of the UK's visa regime point out that the UK's visa is also harder to get because applicants have to attend in person to provide fingerprint samples. UK visa applications also take longer to process than Schengen ones.

Mr Walsh said that the visa issue was affecting both tourism and business. He said that the UK economy was likely to suffer in other ways. He said that the UK would 'need to have more people who speak Chinese and Mandarin. We're losing out on the organised tour groups. It does embarrass me that we don't make more effort'.

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