Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways’s parent company International Airlines Group, has been critical of the current visa regime saying that the level of trade was “significantly behind” its potential.
Speaking on the inaugural flight of BA’s direct service to Chengdu, the rapidly expanding capital of Sichuan province, Walsh said: “We need a visa regime that is less bureaucratic. People need to feel that the UK is actually welcoming. There is a perception in China that the UK doesn’t want to see Chinese tourists or business. We need to put a bit of effort into changing that.
“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.”
He said that air passenger duty, the British aviation tax that adds £83 to the cost of an economy flight to China, and visa fees were “a real deterrent” to visitors. Walsh said limited slots at Heathrow airport had been one factor that had slowed BA’s expansion into China, but said visas were “without question a problem for us”, and claimed that they would have launched the direct Chengdu service a year ago had problems been ironed out.
While Walsh said there had been improvements in the regime, he contrasted the £56 price of a visa for the Schengen area of EU countries – where passport and immigration controls have been abolished – with the £80 it costs a Chinese visitor to enter the UK alone. The market was also more difficult for airlines at Heathrow compared with those at other European hubs where visas for transfer passengers are not required, he said.
Willie warned that Chinese visitors, the fastest growing sector of global travellers, were “bypassing” the UK, and said Britain would need to work harder to attract them. “We’ll 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.”
Willie said that while China was the eighth biggest export market for the UK, “it’s still significantly behind where it could be, when you look at China in terms of its principal imports. There is an opportunity for a lot more trade.”
Willie Walsh also criticised David Cameron and George Osborne for a lack of vision and queried whether the economic recovery could be seen beyond the capital. “If I was Osborne I certainly wouldn’t be popping the champagne corks at this stage.”
“I haven’t seen much evidence of visionary leadership there. To me, they respond to whatever’s topical rather than setting out a long-term plan and a long-term vision for growth in the UK economy.”