PASSPORT TO PROSPERITY

Britain should make visas for Indian visitors less expensive, says a new report

Britain is losing out in the contest for Indian visitors, who pay the same for a six-month visa to visit the UK as Chinese travellers pay for two years, according to a report by the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS). The report recommends that a pilot visa scheme which has boosted Chinese tourism in Britain should be extended to Indian nationals as well.

 

‘The UK and India have strong longstanding and contemporary cultural and economic ties through the Indian diaspora in the UK of 1.4 million people and the shared values of both nations as Commonwealth members through language, law, and democratic traditions,’ says the report, written by Tim Hewish, RCS director of policy and research.

 

‘These ties are reflected in the visitor numbers and spending between the two countries. Just over 400,000 Indians visited the UK in 2015, and spend almost twice the amount as the average visitor to the UK. Indian business visitors spend almost three times the amount spent by the average business visitor.’

 

Recently Britain agreed a pilot scheme for Chinese visitor visas, under which Chinese nationals pay £87 for a two-year visa. This is the same amount as Indian citizens pay for a six-month UK visitor visa (business and leisure), while a two-year visa costs them £330.

 

The report points out that while the overall number of Indian visitors appears impressive, Britain is in fact losing ground: France has now overtaken the UK as the leading western European destination for Indian tourists. Between 2006 and 2013, the UK’s share of worldwide Indian tourism fell by more than half, from a 4.42% share to a 2.13% share.

 

According to the Commonwealth body, the decline is estimated to amount to nearly half a billion pounds per year, and equates to the UK missing out on over 8,400 additional jobs in the tourism industry. This is a serious loss at a time when the referendum vote to leave the European Union has threatened the British economy with recession. India is the third largest direct investor in Britain, but Indian political and business leaders warned before the June 23 vote that access to the EU was important. At such a time, anything that facilitates Indian business travel to the UK would seem prudent, and might make up for the anti-migrant sentiment revealed by the referendum campaign.

 

The report lists a number of other reasons why Britain should make it cheaper and more convenient for Indian visitors to obtain visas. Next year, for example – the 70th anniversary of Indian independence – has been declared the UK-India Year of Culture, with collaboration in spheres including art, music, business and design. The potential to attract Indian tourists is clear. ‘Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi’s visit and the 60,000 strong Wembley Stadium crowds he attracted in November last year showcased the deep bonds of the Indo-British community,’ says the RCS. ‘Meanwhile, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s royal tour to India this April notably resulted in a sharp rise in holiday bookings to India.’

 

While Britain misses the opportunity to boost Indian tourism, India has made it significantly easier for British visitors to obtain a visa. Since the Indian government extended its e-tourist visa scheme to the UK, obtaining a visa has not only become simpler and more convenient, the cost has more than halved, from £90 to just over £40. The result has been a sharp recovery in British visitor numbers, back to the 2008 peak of around a million visits.

 

If Britain responded in kind by cutting the cost of a two-year visa for Indian visitors to £87, the report says, the country would be exploiting a market with huge potential. The number of Indians travelling abroad, it points out, has grown by an average of 10 per cent a year since 1991, reaching just under two million in 1999, 8.3 million in 2006 and 18.3 million in 2014. Yet the latest figure is only 1.4 per cent of the Indian population.

 

‘The scope for growth is colossal,’ the RCS concludes, especially since India will become the world’s youngest country by 2020, with an average age of 29. Since the most recent data shows that Indians between 25 and 34 have consistently been the largest age group visiting the UK, ‘building on these ties could bring benefits that last a lifetime’.

 

The British government, preoccupied with the EU referendum and a change of Prime Minister, had yet to respond to the report at the time of publication. But Chandrajit Banerjee, Director General of the Confederation of Indian Industry, one of the partners of the report, was in no doubt. ‘To optimise exchanges of people, business and ideas, it is important that both the UK and Indian governments discuss this promising proposal openly and collaboratively consider delivering it,’ he said. ‘The strength of the UK-India relationship today must also reflect in a stronger visa regime.’

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