"The changes will assist tourists and business visitors, making it easier for them to make short-term visits to the UK as part of a European 'tour'," said Simon Horsfield of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com. "However those who plan to work in the UK, or who wish to invest in the UK with a view to settling here, will be subject to the current system of tight controls which does not appear to be being relaxed by these proposed changes."
The changes were described as "good news for British business and tourism" when announced by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, at the beginning of a state visit to China. The trip has been organised to strengthen trade partnerships between the UK and China and secure potential investment. The Beijing Construction Engineering Group has already announced its involvement in a new business park by Manchester Airport.
A pilot programme will allow selected Chinese travel agents to apply for UK visas for their customers using the application form for the EU Schengen visa. Holders of this visa can visit 22 of the 28 EU member states plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. However, a separate visa is needed to enter the UK.
The Government also plans to introduce a new 24-hour 'super priority' visa service from next summer, as well as the expansion of the 'mobile visa' service for wealthy travellers to the whole of China. This service already operates in Beijing and Shanghai, and allows officials to collect completed application forms and biometric data directly from applicants in less than five minutes.
China is one of the UK's priority markets for tourism and business, according to the Government, with 210,000 visas issued to visiting Chinese nationals in 2012 alone. Eligible tourists, business visitors and skilled workers can already take advantage of an optional five-day priority visa service at one of 12 application centres across China, six of which offer extended opening hours for those who need to use the service outside of normal business hours.
The UK is also the number one destination for Chinese investment in Europe according to the Government, attracting nearly £2 billion in 2012. Chinese students also make up the largest group of foreign nationals in UK schools and universities, while more than 600 Chinese businesses now have a presence in the UK.
"We are continuing to attract the brightest and best to work and study in the UK, while preventing immigration abuse and bringing net migration down to the tens of thousands," said the UK's Home Secretary, Theresa May. "Our Chinese visa system already provides an excellent service and figures demonstrate that Chinese tourists are increasingly choosing to visit the UK."
According to figures obtained by Pinsent Masons earlier this year, Chinese investors are now the fastest growing group successfully obtaining 'entrepreneur visas', allowing them to start a business in the UK and earn a fast-track to UK citizenship. Five times as many of these visas were issued to Chinese entrepreneurs in 2011/12 as in 2010/11, according to the latest figures available. However, successful applicants must meet strict requirements on access to funding, job creation and business success, as well as English language requirements.