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27 Jun, 2016

How to make post-Brexit U.K. more attractive to visitors from “developing countries”

The British tourism industry has been quick to identify the silver linings amidst the dark clouds of the Brexit-vote crisis. The UK is being marketed as great value for money due to the plummeting pound. The message is clear: The time is right to visit Britain.

I stopped going to the UK five years ago. For 25 years running, I covered the annual World Travel Market in London. My wife and I enjoyed the London art galleries, theatres, museums, restaurants, libraries and the early Christmas lights on Oxford/Regent streets. Along with the WTM, the product was good enough to brave the miserable winters, the occasional tube strikes and the then extremely strong pound. Today, the first two points are still valid, but the pound has taken a pounding. The UK economy is facing some volatility. Visitors from Asia are badly needed. Sure the Chinese will be heading for the UK in droves. But if they do not prove to be enough, the following tips may help British tourism executives bring back ex-visitors like me:

(+) Remove the visa hurdles. Presently, British football hooligans, right-wing extremists, white supremacists, paedophiles, Islamophobic fanatics can walk into Thailand and many ‘developing countries’ without a visa. We, on the other hand, have to make an appointment just to be tested for eligibility to apply for a UK visa. If we are honoured to get an appointment with Her Majesty’s representative, we have to provide a stash of documents such as letter from employer, bank statements, educational certificates, etc., to prove that we 1) are not a security threat; 2) are not going to overstay, work or study illegally; 3) have enough money to support ourselves. If Her Majesty’s representative is not convinced, more documents may be required. This massive databank becomes a treasure trove of valuable intelligence which is beyond any public accountability or privacy safeguards. We are also photographed, fingerprinted and subjected to an interrogation that is a thin line between being questioned for a visitor visa or a crime. Then comes an outrageous visa fee which, to add insult to injury, is not even partially refundable if the visa is denied. The hassle-factor is high enough to say ‘Forget it!’ That’s what I said after my visa expired. I had plenty of choice to take my business elsewhere. Dozens of countries, such as Japan, no longer treat us as being guilty until proven innocent. In the post-Brexit period, if the UK needs me back, it should start treating me the same as the Thai government treats Britons. Even-stevens.

(+) That may help, but partially. Another reason supposedly cited for the Brexit vote was because of a fear of immigrants. Just a few days earlier, a British MP, Jo Cox, was shot dead by a right-wing, white supremacist (who could also walk into Thailand any time without a visa). Anti-immigrant fanatics are clearly becoming terrorists. I’m not sure they would know the difference between an immigrant and a tourist walking in the street (just like those U.S. shooters who don’t know the difference between a turbaned/bearded Sikh and a Muslim). If one of them goes crazy, I risk becoming a victim of a shooting or stabbing spree.

When British tourists visit Thailand, their safety is a matter of big concern. If a Briton falls victim to a crime, Thai tourism authorities are rigorously questioned about safety and security measures. Now, it is our turn to ask British tourist authorities: What are they doing to keep visitors safe from their own homegrown violent extremists, racists and Islamophobes?

(+) Stop issuing travel advisories against our countries. This is another antiquated, colonial relic that somehow seems to be considered very relevant to protect the British travelling public. Just as the Thai government cannot guarantee the safety and security of every British tourist in Thailand, there’s no way the UK government can guarantee the safety and security of every Thai tourist in the UK. Why should the British issue travel advisories against us when they cannot guarantee our safety and security in their country? The next time they trot one out in the post-Brexit era, our governments and indeed, our people, are likely to run out of patience.

(+) Finally, they need to start showing a little more respect for the people of Asia. I was born in India, one of many countries long colonised by the British. Mahatma Gandhi, known as the Father of India, led one of the greatest peaceful revolutions in history against the British colonialists. The colonialists were not entirely bad. They bequeathed us the English language, a wonderful education system, the parliamentary system of democracy, a free Press, the foundations of a good transportation system, etc. But we also paid a price. Today, a new world order is emerging, and the Brexit vote is a clear example of that.

No empire lasts forever. Thousands of British expats live all around the world, especially in their former colonies. I know many Britons who have learned the lessons of history and are extremely respectful of local people, culture, history and heritage. I also know many others still stuck in the supremacist colonial rut. These latter ones are those most in need of what the Thai government calls attitude adjustment courses. Respect and accountability is a two-way street. The era of double-standards is over.

I look forward to re-visiting the UK to enjoy everything that I truly love about the country––its multiculturalism, restaurants, museums, art galleries, theatres and much more. Much of that remains intact, but a lot has changed. As British tourism authorities step up the marketing of their new “value for money” sales pitch, addressing the concerns raised above may help make their job easier.

It may be a great time to visit the once Great Britain, but it’s also time to level the playing field.