Presently, as I write this from China, I feel distant from the politics of the UK. But even with all the websites that are blocked by the Great Fire Wall, including the BBC’s, it is difficult to not get drawn into everything surrounding the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, which for some reason has been given a strange name, a very unimaginative amalgamation consisting of the first two letters of Britain and the word exit.
I don’t know who devised this word, but it is of the type that someone would think of without much thought, half-drunk, over a beer, on a Friday night in some bar somewhere in the UK. Whoever was responsible for this word, must never have imagined that it would eventually be entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.
This is without reference to its etymology being incorrect. That’s right, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone that it is not even so accurate a word, if we take into account the fact that it is not only Great Britain’s exit from the European Union that is on the cards, rather that of the United Kingdom.
So if we have to use some amalgamation because we are far too lazy to say or write ‘the UK’s exit from the EU’ each time, Kexit would be a more appropriate word. I will put things into perspective though, and stress that this just a minor thing.
Really, the major issue is what it represents, and as I am here to focus on travel, I want to avoid discussing the politics of it, but focus on what this will mean for travellers once/if it happens.
A postal vote conspiracy
Firstly, I should say that I was in China at the time of the referendum. My postal vote arrived at my Chinese address two weeks after they had already announced the referendum results. As someone who loves travel, and by extension the free movement of people, I was and I am pro-European Union. I did wonder if this was some conspiracy; if you are living overseas you arguably may be more open to the idea of movement of people over borders, therefore perhaps more likely to vote to stay in the EU. If most overseas voters who registered for a postal vote didn’t get their letter in time, was a sizable percentage of the voting population missed out, and did this disproportionately affect the vote to stay in?
I’d be interested to hear from others living overseas at the time of the referendum, and whether or not they were able to do a postal vote. If I had to do this again, I would opt for a proxy vote – having someone in the UK fill out the ballot slip on my behalf – another option available to overseas residents.
For visitors from the UK, what will the UK’s exit from the EU mean when travelling to an EU member country?
Since a deal has yet to be formalised, this is going to be pure speculation. Many right-wing newspapers are suggesting that a visa will be required. However I would argue that this is very unlikely to be the case. What is more likely is that British travellers will be required to register online similar to the United States of America ESTA system. In fact, it is reported that the EU has been developing a system since prior to the referendum which would apply to citizens of all countries that currently don’t require a visa to travel to an EU country, such as the USA, or Australia. This is called the European Travel Information and Authorisation System (ETIAS).
So apart from a minor inconvenience of having to pre-register online, and a small expense (reportedly around US$8), there should really be little impact on UK travellers after the leave date.
For visitors from EU member countries, what will this mean when travelling to the UK?
Given that reciprocal agreements are usually implemented, it is likely to be a similar system of online pre-registration, but this of course remains to be seen.
For visitors from outside of the EU who currently require a visa, will there be any change?
It may be that without the safety blanket of the European Union, the UK will attempt to create closer ties with other countries, and as part of this make it easier for citizens from these countries to meet the requirements for visitor visas. As someone who has many friends around the world, particularly in Asia, who are very keen to visit the UK but are dissuaded by the stringent visa requirements, I certainly hope so.
The UK government has already recognised that as it is not part of the Schengen visa area, it is seen as less attractive to potential visitors from countries that require a visa. If travelling to mainland Europe, these tourists can obtain one visa and travel to many countries within the Schengen visa zone. So this alone certainly makes travel to mainland Europe more appealing.
Not ignoring the potential size and therefore value of the tourist market from China, the UK government has changed the visitor visa policy so as to automatically grant a multiple entry two year visa, rather than the 6 month visa granted to citizens of other nations. This may have helped the steady rise in visitors from China.
Here are some figures. July 2017 to June 2018 the UK saw an almost 5% drop in visitor numbers from Europe and North America, but a 4% rise in visitor numbers from the rest of the world, including Asia.
So to take a closer look at visitors to the UK from two countries, China and Thailand.
2017 saw 337,127 Chinese visitors, an increase of 29.45%, on the previous year, with a total expenditure of £694.04 million, an increase of 35.16%.
For the same period, visitors from Thailand numbered 93,563, an increase of 21.81% on the previous year, with a total expenditure of 109.46 million pounds, an increase of 24.64%.
We see that whilst tourist numbers from Europe and North America have dropped off, from outside of these regions, we’ve seen a small but significant increase. But where we see a huge increase in visitor numbers to the UK is from certain Asian countries such as China and Thailand, with quickly expanding middle-classes that have increasing amounts of disposable income that they are willing to spend on luxuries such as travel.
Increased tourism to the UK can bring enormous economic benefit – this is clear. Just looking at the figures above, we see that in 2017, visitors from just two countries, China and Thailand, contributed approximately £800 million to the United Kingdom’s economy. That’s not to mention the increased employment opportunities for UK residents.
Furthermore, travel is an excellent way of bringing different cultures together, creating understanding and respect for different ways of living, surely a good way to maintain peace in the world.
So as long as it is conducted responsibly and in a sustainable way, inbound tourism is undoubtedly something that the UK government should seek to further increase.
This brings me back to the question: what is the UK’s exit from the European Union likely to mean for travellers? We may see little change, and it’s all still speculation, but I certainly hope that whatever policy decisions are made, these decisions help to increase not decrease numbers of travellers from and to the UK.