Thailand opts out of regional visa scheme

Four ASEAN countries – Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar – have agreed to introduce a single visa for foreign visitors from around the globe. This means that non-ASEAN foreigners, including those from Europe, North America and Australia, will be able to enter any one of those four countries with a visa on arrival and then automatically visit any of the other three without a further visa and without paying an additional fee.

Thailand, however, has opted out of the agreement which will begin next year.  The four-country scheme will be launched at the World Travel Mart in UK this November and in Germany early next year. Thanate Vorasaran, vice-president of the Tourism Council of Thailand, said the Thai government had declined to join in because foreign visitors from 45 countries do not need a visa to enter Thailand for up to 30 days.  These visa-exempt nationals, who include Americans, Australians and most Europeans, will continue to visit Thailand free of visa fees and obtain their stamp on arrival at a Thai airport.

Travel experts say that Thailand’s position is understandable as it allows many aliens visa-free travel in stark contrast to her neighbors. Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Myanmar require all (or nearly all) foreigners to pay for a visa either in advance or at the airport or border post. Consequently it is a lot easier for those four countries to pool resources and bureaucracies with the proposed common visa.

Additionally, Thailand is suspected of fearing a loss of revenue from visa fees if it were to join the common scheme. Thailand currently earns nearly two billion baht in visa-on-arrival fees for the two million Chinese and one million Indian nationals who are expected to travel to Thailand in the next year or so. The Thai government is reluctant to give up this cash bonus which would largely disappear if the country joined a common visa scheme with her neighbors.

None the less, the Association of Thai Travel Agents is warning that Thailand could lose out in the medium term. “Private operators in Thailand are concerned that inbound tourism will drop if non-ASEAN tourists enjoy greater convenience when entering other countries in the region,” said a spokesman. He added that Thailand has an excellent strategic location but would be unable to grasp the opportunity by remaining outside the regional visa scheme.

There are also concerns that some of Thailand’s rivals are actively marketing themselves to woo visitors away from Thailand. Singapore recently opened Las Vegas-style casinos and Malaysia offers many incentives to long-stay visitors including a 10-year visa option. Even Cambodia has seen a surge in tourism in the last two years with many visitors entering through Vietnamese border posts rather than the traditional Thai ones.

Thailand’s share of regional tourism has dropped from 38 percent in 2008 to 33 percent last year. About 80 million visitors travel into the region every year. Of them, 45 percent are from ASEAN countries and 55 percent are from outside the region. The conundrum for Thailand is that going it alone could lead to the country’s eventually becoming isolated on the periphery of ASEAN tourism rather than at its heart.

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