Passport Control: First Impressions of British Hospitality

As long queues and red tape are reported to discourage non European Union visitors to the UK the hotel industry stands to lose valuable custom at a time when it is most needed.

The UK Border Force’s monthly performance survey demonstrates that non European Union visitors face delays of up to 3 hours at passport control this month. UK Immigration Minister Damian Green appeared before the British Parliaments Home Affairs Committee on the 15th May to answer questions about queues at passport control in Heathrow airport.

Travellers wishing to visit the UK may well be ‘put off’ visiting by these reports and by reports of friends and family who have been through the process. Social media also allows visitors to document and broadcast failings in the UK border control system with immediate effect and could easily put off potential visitors thus damaging the UK hospitality industry.

Passport Control and Visa problems

Not only do the queuing times and airport chaos dissuade potential visitors but also the initial visa process which is convoluted and expensive. Tom Jenkins, Executive Director of European Tour Operators Association said:

“Images of queues at Heathrow damage the UK; they make the prospect of a visit here tiresome and unattractive. The damage done by this is major, but is short term: it can be fixed quickly. The damage done by our visa regime takes place thousands of miles away, where the clients are, in the origin markets. These markets, such as India, China and Indonesia, are of enormous long term importance to our strategic growth as a destination. They are being lost.”

Research conducted by ETOA reveals that hundreds of millions of pounds are lost to the UK economy every year because the visa process is so alienating that applicants give up and decide to go elsewhere.

  • The UK tourist visa costs £78, which currently offers two countries: the UK and, courtesy of a recent waiver scheme, Ireland. The Schengen visa costs €60 and offers 26 countries.
  • The Schengen visa application form is three pages long; that for the UK is eight pages.
  • The UK visa form has to be completed in English. The Chinese do not require their visa forms to be completed in Chinese characters; the Russians do not insist on Cyrillic
  • Prospective visitors have to submit fingerprints as well as a photo, make themselves available for an interview at a location that can be hundreds of miles from where they live. They may have to wait for as long as three weeks for a decision
  • ETOA’s survey of travel agents and tour operators showed that 26% of Indian and 30% of Chinese clients applying for UK visas gave up rather than endure this time consuming and humiliating application.
  • France now attracts over 50% more visitors from India than the UK.
  • In 2009, Switzerland joined the Schengen Area. Indian visitor arrivals were at 132,000 in 2008, by 2010 they stood at 197,000; this was growth of 49%. In the same period, the UK numbers rose from 359,000 to 371,000: a growth rate of 3%.
  • Since the UK introduced visas for South Africans in 2009, visitor numbers have declined by 24%. In the same year visas were abolished for Taiwanese travelling to the UK. Visitor numbers have since increased by 39% and revenue by 155%.
  • Visit Britain’s figures show that just 3% of Chinese visitors to Europe in 2010 obtained a UK visa, 2% obtained both UK and Schengen visas and 95% obtained just a Schengen visa.

First impressions of Britain

Jo Causon Chief Executive of the Institute of Customer Service said:

“Airports are so much more than a mere gateway through which a passenger passes en route to somewhere else, and Heathrow must deliver on the whole customer experience. This cannot merely be by reducing queue times, but by ensuring that travellers’ first interaction with the UK is a positive one.”

Before a guest even arrives at their hotel they may have a very negative impression of the country which the hotelier must then overcome.

Ahead of the Olympic Games the Government has agreed to hire an additional 80 Border control staff and they are currently looking into improving the speed and experience of obtaining a UK visa. Given the effects this will have on the UK hotel industry, here’s hoping they will give this priority.

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