I am grateful to the Senator for raising this issue. It gives me an opportunity, on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, to update the House on the numerous positive developments that have taken place in the Irish visa regime since the Government came to power and, in particular, developments in respect of visitors from China.
The commitment of the Government to the facilitation and growth in the number of visits to Ireland from China is shown by the fact that the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service of the Department maintains a dedicated visa office in Beijing. In general, business visas are processed within two to five working days of receipt of applications, while visit visa applications for Chinese nationals are processed within one to three weeks. The approval rate for visa applications lodged in China for travel to Ireland is 95%, which compares favourably internationally. Application guidelines for all visa categories are published on the Irish Embassy website in English and Chinese. Applications for visas for Ireland are made online using a user-friendly web-based form. This is in contrast with many visa regimes which require the completion of lengthy paper application forms.
There is no evidence that the visa process is a barrier to tourist, business or family visits from China to Ireland. In fact, the latest report of the European Tour Operators Association which examined the effect of visa obligations on tourists from India and China covering the year 2010 showed that the figure for cancellations owing to perceived visa delays reflected very favourably on Ireland, with only 15% of clients reporting cancellations, as against 21% for the Schengen area and 24% for the United Kingdom. This demonstrates that Ireland is not at a disadvantage against its main competitors owing to any issue with perceived delays in visa processing. The Minister is advised that the checking procedures and processes in place are at least on a par with those in the United Kingdom, with which we share a common immigration area, and less onerous than those in place for many other EU member states. Of far greater impact on both tourist and business visits is the lack of a direct air link between the two countries. If the Senator has a particular case in mind or has suggestions to further improve the situation, while maintaining sensible immigration checks, the Minister would be glad to receive them.
The Minister launched the short stay visa waiver programme, the first of its kind in the history of the State, on 1 July 2011. This allows visitors or business people, including those from China, who have lawfully entered the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, on a valid UK visa to travel on to Ireland without the requirement to obtain an Irish visa. CSO figures for the numbers of trips by Chinese nationals to Ireland show that there was a 24% increase in the 12 months following the introduction of the waiver programme compared to the 12 months before. This demonstrates the positive impact of the Government's initiative.
With effect from 1 August 2012, a more liberal multi-entry visa regime for business travellers and other visitors was implemented in the Irish visa office in Beijing. The regime has been extended to regular family visitors with a good immigration history. The Minister has asked his officials to examine how this regime could be further developed. In recognition of the growing number of affluent and independent tourists from China, a scheme to enable independent Chinese travellers to come to Ireland was introduced in November 2011. The category was formally launched by the Taoiseach during the course of his official visit to China in April 2012. The visa application requirements for independent tourists are minimal and I am informed that Tourism Ireland has welcomed this initiative. This category of visa application is processed within ten working days.
With regard to Chinese nationals visiting Ireland for study purposes, in 2012 a pilot programme in respect of English language study was developed jointly between the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service and Marketing English in Ireland, the umbrella body for English language schools, for the Chinese market. The programme seeks to target high quality, motivated English language students and aims to develop the market in a sustainable way. The programme is designed to significantly contribute to the development of Ireland's reputation as a premier destination for Chinese students to achieve a high standard in English language education. The programmes are at an early stage and it is important that they be given sufficient time to grow and develop before a final review is undertaken. However, progress under these programmes is reviewed on an ongoing basis.
All of these positive developments must be balanced against protecting the country's vital national interests by maintaining an effective immigration regime, which is a feature of all visa regimes worldwide. All visa applications must be assessed carefully to determine, as far as possible, that applicants will abide by the conditions of their visas and will not become a burden on the State. These concerns apply most pertinently in cases where elderly relatives are seeking to visit their relations in Ireland, a common feature of visa applications from China. Such applications are not straightforward and present difficult issues that all countries must address. Nevertheless, the 95% approval rate for visa applications from China demonstrates that the checks and safeguards in place allow, in the long run, for the vast majority of persons seeking to visit their relatives to do so.