LEADING MPs and experts from the aviation industry are set to ramp up pressure on the government by calling for the two-year visa to be revamped to encourage more Indi an tourists to visit Britain.
Labour MP Virendra Sharma, who chairs the Indo-British All Party Parliamentary Group, and businessman Lord Karan Bilimoria are among some 60 figures who will sign an open letter next month.
It will support a recommendation by the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) for the government to act, Eastern Eye has learned.
A report published by the non-partisan organisation last month revealed that France has overtaken the UK as the European destination most visited by Indian citizens, de spite Britain’s 1.4 million strong diaspora community.
More than 420,000 Indians travelled to the UK last year, compared to the 500,000 who went to France.
The proportion of Indian travellers choosing to head to the UK has halved from 4.4 per cent to 2.1 per cent over the past decade.
It is estimated that it is costing the UK economy £500 million each year, due to the falling proportion of wealthy Indian travellers and business owners, according to the RCS.
It wants India to be added to the UK’s latest £87 two-year visa scheme which is available to Chinese tourists in a pilot programme.
Currently, Indians pay £330 for a two-year visa or £600 for a five-year permit. They receive only six months access for £87. In comparison, to enter the US, Indian visitors pay just $160 (£120) for a 10-year visa.
Tim Hewish, the director of policy and research who wrote the report called A Passage from India which was published last month, told Eastern Eye: “France has courted global Indian tourists and the US offers a 10-year visa for $160, so it’s no contest when you are looking to travel the world and you can have a 10- year visa to America.
“The Home Office should look at visit visas a lot more favourably. This is effectively about tourism and Britain should want to remain a welcoming country and it can do that through its visa regime.
“As long as there are strict security procedures in place, I don’t see why we can’t have a visa reform that reflects the deal that China got last year. It’s in Britain’s interest to do so.”
Hewish added that the RCS was involved in ongoing discussions with government departments about the matter.
“We also need the Indian government to come forward and ask for this and the British to respond. It would be a good policy for the government to implement. We are giving them a friendly but gentle push in that direction,” he said.
In the report, Hewish highlighted the fact that the UK could not take Indian visitors for granted
and had to work harder to attract them as it had done in relation to the Chinese.
The spending power among increasingly wealthy travellers from the south Asian country is substantial – last year, Indian business visitors spent £201 million, which is almost three times the average spend on business trips to the UK.
“By not reacting swiftly, the UK is further risking its market share of the growing global number of Indian visitors,” the report says.
“The UK’s share has contracted by half, while its main competitors are growing or remaining stable. The introduction of the £87 two-year visa pilot scheme to replace the existing £330 offer for Indian visitors will prove an excellent and popular policy measure.”
The two largest cities for visits from India to the UK are New Delhi and Mumbai, according to Visit Britain.
In the report, Hewish said: “While Indian visitor numbers appear healthy at first glance, the real ity is that the UK is losing its market share of India’s outbound travellers. This loss has been esti mated to amount to nearly half a billion pounds per year and equates to the UK missing out on 8,444 additional jobs in the tourism industry.”
The recommendation precedes the UK-India Year of Culture, announced by David Cameron in November during Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Britain. Its focus is to cement relations between the two countries and mark the 70th anniversary of Indian independence.
Dr Naushad Forbes, president of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said: “India is among the top three foreign investors in the UK economy, highlighting deep business links between the countries. Several companies require professionals going out for business travel to London and other regions in the UK quite frequently. From an inward investment point of view, the two-year UK visitor visa would enhance ease of doing business with the UK as compared to securing a visa every six months. And that’s how business in the 21st century should be – practical, productive and problem-free.”
There are a total of 16 visa application centres in India. A shorter online application form is also available as well as a same-day super priority and the three-to-five day priority visa service.
VisitBritain director Patricia Yates told Eastern Eye: “India is a key growth market and VisitBritain continues to invest in relevant partnerships with the trade, airlines, media and Bollywood. We are increasing our focus on content and digital marketing to convert more visitors to not only stay longer in Britain but to also explore the countryside and cities including London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
“Visitors from India already have a high propensity to travel beyond London, with more than half of those surveyed saying they did so. The vibrancy of cities like Manchester and Liverpool appeals to Indian visitors and, with British education held in high regard, Cambridge and Oxford also have high appeal.”
A Home Office spokesperson said the two-year visa scheme was a China-specific pilot and there were no current plans to expand this.
He added: “About 370,000 visitor visas were issued to Indian nationals in the year ending March 2016, a 13 per cent increase on the previous year.
“We have recently implemented a number of improvements to make the application process as quick and easy as possible.”