Thailand Considers Six-Nation Visa To Lure Affluent Travellers

Thailand is leading an effort to create a joint-visa program with nations that collectively welcomed roughly 70 million visitors last year. This is part of Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s broader strategy to attract more long-haul and high-spending travellers.

Prime Minister Srettha has made it his mission to transform Thailand from a renowned tourist destination into a major aviation and logistics center.

He has proposed a visa arrangement similar to Europe’s Schengen visa to counterparts in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam over recent discussions.

This visa scheme aims to facilitate easy travel across these six neighbouring countries.

The introduction of a unified visa has been well received by most leaders, signaling Thailand’s intention to increase earnings from each visitor.

This strategy is seen as a way to support its economy amid challenges like declining exports and global demand, which have impacted its manufacturing sector.

In 2023, these six Southeast Asian countries saw a total of 70 million international tourists, as official figures state. Thailand and Malaysia were responsible for over half of these visits, bringing in approximately $48 billion in tourism revenue.

Among Prime Minister Srettha’s various tourism-focused projects, the single-visa initiative is the most ambitious and is designed with a long-term perspective.

Tourism has been a significant economic driver for Thailand, contributing to around 20% of all employment and roughly 12% of its $500 billion GDP.

Excluding the pandemic years, the tourism sector has thrived, offering a buffer against the downturns in manufacturing and exports, which are traditional economic mainstays.

The tourism sector is optimistic, with Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, ex-president of the Thai Hotels Association, suggesting that a common visa could make it easier for tourists from afar to decide to visit.

She also mentioned that extending the visa’s validity to 90 days, from the current 30, could increase its appeal.

Under Srettha’s leadership, Thailand aims to attract 80 million tourists by 2027.

Since assuming office around seven months ago, his government has enacted a reciprocal visa exemption with China, Thailand’s largest tourism market, and has introduced temporary visa exemptions for visitors from India, Taiwan, and Kazakhstan.

The government is considering the introduction of casinos within large entertainment complexes and leveraging event-based tourism as additional revenue sources.

Bill Barnett, the managing director at C9 Hotelworks, a consultancy in hospitality and real estate, believes that visa-free travel can benefit more than just the tourism industry, aiding business travelers and trade through easier travel.

However, achieving a visa system similar to the Schengen area, enabling unrestricted movement across a zone without internal borders in Europe, could be challenging.

This is due to ASEAN’s history of slow progress in developing joint policy agreements and its reputation for being more focused on discussion than action.

“Country by country seems to be the best way to do it,” Barnett stated. “Bilateral agreements, where governments are leading the way for this type of thing, make a lot of sense as they are looking outward and not inward.”

Coordinating a joint visa system involves aligning approvals and dealing with the lack of unified immigration standards among the countries, unlike the European Union, explains Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor in the political science department at Chulalongkorn University.

He adds that ASEAN, as an organization, suffers from division and a weak record on immigration matters.

As a political newcomer, Srettha may find it difficult to advance the visa proposal, Thitinan observes.

“All the various things he’s been trying to do, I see it as picking low-hanging fruits and picking fruits off the ground,” Mr Thitinan said. “Sometimes fruits on the ground are rotten.”