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With hundreds of Chinese tourists expected to descend on England for the London Olympics, the UK's visa offices in China are bracing to handle the rush by increasing the size of their embassy staff.
In a UK visa workshop earlier this week in Beijing, Matt Heath, regional manager of the UK Border Agency, said 150 additional visa officers will start working next month at 12 visa application centers in China.
"We added 90 officers in 2011, and this year the figure will go up to 150," Heath said. "The move is intended to control the waiting time within 15 working days even during the summer peak."
In addition to increased staff, Chinese citizens applying for UK visas will gain conveniences from other measures that the British Embassy is taking to improve its service in the Olympic year.
With a new online application and appointment system, applicants no longer have to wait for at least two to three hours before they submit application forms and other materials to visa centers.
"Now submitting them in person can only take 30 minutes," Heath said. "And if the application, like the type of business, is urgent, applicants can even come to the nearest visa centers without booking."
That's good news for Cheng Zhihua, a 75-year-old sports fan in Haikou, South China's Hainan province, who said her plan is to go to London to watch the Olympic Games this year.
Cheng said she's worried that obtaining a visa might be difficult and might prevent her from attaining that goal.
"I've been preparing to go to the London Olympics," she said. "But a rumor is going around that getting a UK visa is extremely difficult in an Olympic year, when the number of visitors allowed into the country is sure to be restricted."
Fortunately, with more staff and an easier means of applying, Cheng doesn't have to worry. The British Embassy has said the number of visas issued before and during the Olympic period this summer will not be restricted.
The British embassy has reported that more than 205,000 UK visit visas were issued to Chinese citizens last year, a 25 percent increase from the number in 2010 and 65 percent from 2009. And the number of Chinese tourists traveling to the UK has increased by 177 percent since 2009.
Shao Qiwei, head of the China National Tourism Administration, said on March 16 that China has seen a rapid increase in outbound travel and has contributed greatly to global tourism. Chinese people made 70.25 million visits to other countries or regions in 2011, making the country the biggest source of outbound tourists in Asia, according to Shao.
A survey on Visa global travel intentions, conducted by Nielsen Company between February and March in 2011, showed that wealthy Chinese tourists spend $4,448 on average per trip.
The people in the survey indicated they plan to travel abroad seven to nine times in the next two years.
Chinese tourists spent a record $7.2 billion on luxury goods overseas in January, mostly during the Spring Festival holiday, according to a report by the World Luxury Association, a nonprofit organization specializing in market research.
"This thriving market has drawn attention from around the world," said Li Chuangxin, a researcher at the China Tourism Academy. "At least 20 countries, including Germany, Spain, Australia and New Zealand, have reduced their visa limitations to attract more Chinese visitors.
"For this profitable market, the United Kingdom has no excuse for staying behind, especially when the Olympic effect brings opportunities this year."
For the upcoming peak season, the UK Border Agency said it will make submitting an application more convenient and efficient without lowering standards.
"We will not put a limit on visa applications but will keep our standards and maintain a strong border and protect the public during the Games," Heath said.