A major travel company has been misinforming customers about the visa rules for China, costing them hundreds of pounds and many hours of hassle.
Travelbag, which is part of the Emirates Group, told passengers on a cruise which ends in Shanghai: “Please ensure you arrange your visa prior to departing the UK.”
The process for obtaining a Chinese visa involves a mandatory visit to a visa centre in London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast, to be photographed and fingerprinted as well as a fee upwards of £150.
Yet many British travellers do not need visas for the People’s Republic because of the generous “transit without visa” provision, which allows them to stay six full days with no red tape by meeting some simple conditions.
British visitors must arrive direct from a country outside China (which in this context includes Hong Kong) and depart direct to a different country.
Gillian Collins is the Travelbag customer who contacted The Independent, saying: “Could you advise if we can use a transit exemption visa? We have been given different answers several times and time is running out for us.”
Ms Collins is flying out to Singapore to board a Royal Caribbean cruise to Vietnam, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Like many such travellers, she has booked two nights in a hotel in the Chinese city and then is flying back direct to Heathrow.
The vast majority of UK passengers on the cruise who are staying for six days (144 hours) or less and leaving to anywhere in the world apart from Hong Kong and mainland China qualify for visa-free transit.
As the Shanghai General Station of Immigration Inspection confirms, they can arrive at either of the city’s cruise ports or airports. All they need is a passport and an “onward air/vessel/train ticket to a third country with confirmed date and seat within 144 hours upon arrival”. Visitors must remain in the Shanghai area during their “transit”. Most travellers whose cruises end in Shanghai spend two or three nights exploring the city before flying home.
Travelbag is a member of Abta, the travel association. Under the Abta Code of Conduct, companies are obliged to “advise their clients of passport, visa and other entry and transit requirements for the journeys to be undertaken where it is reasonably practicable for the members to obtain this information”.
The information has been in the public domain for at least three years.
A spokesperson for Travelbag said: “This particular situation has exposed a flaw in our processes, which we will now seek to rectify for the future as a priority.
“As this passenger’s experience shows, the Chinese visa protocols and procedure is complex and we apologise if, in trying to assist, we gave them incorrect information that caused them any additional stress.
“That wasn’t done with any ill-intent – but does show we need to review and improve staff knowledge of visa requirements for that destination, and how we are communicating that to, or assisting, customers with resolving their queries through our offline and online channels.”
Ms Collins said: “Due to all the hassle and time spent trying to find out the correct answer as to if we did or did not need a visa, we were seriously wishing that we hadn’t booked the cruise.
“I am pleased that they have acknowledged the fact that they did not provide us with the correct information and hopefully, some good will come out of this as in, more people will want to visit Shanghai and won’t be put off having to pay £150 for a visa.”
The Travelbag spokesperson said: “We are confident that the information and advice we’re giving regarding visas or permits for the other worldwide destinations we sell is accurate and in accordance with Abta’s member requirements.”