Thai authorities have promised a variety of new visas for foreigners entering and staying in the country. But, so far at least, the all-important detail is lacking. Thus Kobkarn Wattanavarangkul, minister of tourism and sports, recently announced that an electronic visa project supervised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will kick off next year. This appears to be an initial response to the growing demand for an ASEAN-wide tourist visa which would seek to imitate the single-visa Schengen policy practiced in some areas of Europe. That policy means that visa applicants must obtain their approval at the first Schengen country they intend to visit. But they are then able to travel freely within the 26-nation group.
It is unlikely that an ASEAN-wide tourist visa will be introduced as early as next year. For the present, the various countries have widely different policies. Thus Vietnam does not require a prior visa for the nationals of 23 countries including ASEAN nationals, but most Europeans and all Americans still need to apply in advance. On the other hand, Cambodia issues visas-on-arrival to virtually all foreigners and charges a flat fee of 30 US dollars for a month’s tourism stay. It is likely that the Thai minister’s intention to introduce an electronic visa next year would cover just one or two countries, apart from Thailand, the most likely candidate being Cambodia. Thus a foreigner, say from Europe, would apply from a Thai embassy abroad for a joint visa enabling travel between the two countries. In other words, comprehensive visa-free travel for non-ASEAN nationals will take a long time to implement fully as there are many security and policy issues to address in the meantime.
Another Thai visa in the pipeline is the promised 10-year retirement visa which is now under detailed review by immigration authorities. To date, the suggested requirements are a bigger foreign income or a larger cash deposit in a Thai bank than the current baseline of 800,000 baht or equivalent in foreign currency. Other rumours concern compulsory medical insurance which could prove problematical for elderly expats. But it is not clear whether the proposed 10-year visa will replace current rules for an annual visa, or merely be an additional option, and whether current holders of the retirement visa would be safeguarded on current regulations in a big reorganization. In the past, one-year visa holders have been protected in a concept known as “grandfathering”. Clarity on all these matters is likely months away.
Meanwhile, the Thai government continues its policy of restricting in-out visa runs, believing that many aliens are using this loophole to work illegally in the kingdom. Thus it was been announced that, from August this year, immigration officers will scrutinize carefully the passports of foreigners arriving by air to ascertain if they are “living” in Thailand without a prior and approved visa. The policy of restricting visa runners at land crossings is already in operation. However, foreigners with double or multiple-entry visas in their passports appear to be unaffected by the new restrictions as the crackdown appears to be concentrated on those with 15 or 30 day visas or exemptions. In a separate announcement, the government also announced last month that travellers arriving at land border-crossings would now receive 30 days on arrival, irrespective of nationality, but only twice in a calendar year. On the third attempt, they would be refused entry.
Immigration specialists say that the common core behind all these initiatives is to attract wealthier foreigners on a long stay basis, whilst restricting repeated-entry for those who do not have an authorized visa. As visitors from Europe and the United States decline in number, or remain static, the numbers from China continue to boom in spite of the alleged crackdown on zero-sum vacations. Research now shows that Chinese visitors spend more money on shopping in Thailand than any other nationality. This trend, as income rises in China, can be expected to grow and not only in the tourist market. Thus the relaunch of the elite card is targeting rich Chinese businessmen and retirees who are prepared to pay a one-off fee in return for visa and other privileges. A 20-year elite card costs an initial 2 million baht, whereas the “baby” version for five years requires an upfront payment of 500,000 baht. There are currently no income requirements or compulsory health insurance restrictions.