Chinese visitors are a potentially huge market for London’s West End. Already they are the highest spenders.

Chinese visitors are a potentially huge market for London’s West End. Already they are the highest spenders, particularly on luxury goods in Bond Street and in the flagship stores on Oxford Street and Regent Street.

But the continuing growth in the wealth of Chinese individuals and their increasing propensity to travel beyond traditional South Asian destinations means that London and the UK could benefit from more of them visiting and enjoying our unique British culture and attractions. The knock-on effect of this is that the amount of money spent by Chinese visitors could also grow exponentially over the coming years.

Undoubtedly, this would be good news for the West End but would also bring about clear benefits for the UK economy. Chinese visitors, who spend their money within the West End’s superb choice of stores on one day, could potentially become students or business investors the next.

But West End retailers know that their stores in London attract far fewer Chinese visitors than, for example, their Parisian competitors. Till receipts in London, often in comparison to their own brand’s store in Paris also prove this. Now, it has become abundantly clear to those reviewing the UK’s visa system, that the need to get a separate visa to include the UK on a European tour is the main obstacle.

That’s why New West End Company, in partnership with London First, Walpole British Luxury, Global Blue and McArthurGlen, set up the UK China Visa Alliance to persuade the Government to take a hard look at how we could make the whole process easier and simpler.

This week, the Home Secretary, Theresa May MP, attended the launch of the UKCVA’s new report on this issue. Importantly, she accepted the report’s main recommendations.

The Alliance had already persuaded the government on our main argument. We had pointed out that the traveller has to make two separate applications at separate times and places which is the main problem. Our research showed that only 6% of the 1.4 million Chinese visitors to Europe actually go through the process twice. Most (86%) apply for a Schengen visa which allows them to visit 26 countries - but not the UK.

Our point was that the answer is not just to make it easier to apply for a UK visa. The answer is to make it easier to apply for both visas in one go – simply a one stop shop.

In December 2013, the Prime Minister announced in Beijing that establishing a “joint shop window” was the government’s chosen way forward. Our report welcomes this recognition and proposes practical ways to achieve this.

The Government had already established a pilot scheme to allow a completed Schengen application form to be copied and submitted which we said was the first step towards streamlining the two application processes.

At our launch, the Home Secretary announced that the pilot has been a success and will now be rolled out to all Chinese visitors. Theresa May has also confirmed the Government will pilot our second recommendation of working with Schengen Visa Application Centres to allow an applicant to apply for both visas, with a common set of paper work. So, we will keep the separate application processing, needed to protect the UK’s border security, but the Chinese visitor will, in effect, apply only once.

There is still some way to go of course. But the successful launch of the UKCVA’s report and the Home Secretary’s announcement moves us much closer to realising the potential of the huge Chinese market for the West End. It is an agenda which New West End Company is determined to keep driving forward, on behalf of all the great retail businesses it represents.

  • Richard Dickinson is chief executive of the New West End Company