20231210 thailand
Thailand and Malaysia accounted for more than half of the tally, generating about $48 billion in tourism revenue. Image Credit: Supplied

Thailand is steering an initiative for a joint-visa program with countries that together hosted about 70 million tourists last year as Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin ramps up initiatives to attract more long-haul and high-spending travelers.

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Srettha "- who's pledged to elevate Thailand's status as a tourism hotspot into an aviation and logistics hub "- has discussed the Schengen-type visa idea with his counterparts in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam in recent months. The facility is meant to ensure seamless mobility for travellers among the six neighbouring countries.

With most leaders positively responding to the single-visa concept, tourism-reliant Thailand aims to generate more revenue per traveler and cushion its economy from headwinds such as sluggish exports and weak global demand that's hurt its manufacturing industry.

The six Southeast Asian nations reported a combined 70 million foreign tourist arrivals in 2023, according to official data. Thailand and Malaysia accounted for more than half of the tally, generating about $48 billion in tourism revenue.

The single-visa is the most-ambitious among Srettha's lineup of tourism initiatives but targeted for the long-term. The industry has served the country well, accounting for about 20 per cent of total jobs and making up about 12 per cent to the nation's $500 billion economy. Barring the pandemic years, tourism has flourished and provided a cushion against a slump in manufacturing and exports, the traditional bulwarks of the economy.

The tourism industry is upbeat, with Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, a former president of the Thai Hotels Association, saying "a common visa could entice long-haul travelers to make an easier decision." The visa validity will need to be extended to 90 days from the usual 30-day period to make it attractive, she said.

Srettha's administration has set a goal of attracting 80 million tourists by 2027. And since taking power about seven months ago, his government has signed a reciprocal visa waiver deal with China "- Thailand's largest market for tourists "- and offered temporary visa waivers for travelers from India, Taiwan and Kazakhstan. It's also mulling a plan to open casinos inside large entertainment complexes and event-based tourism will help the country generate more revenue.

Schengen-type visa

If done right, the benefits of visa-free travel won't be confined to tourism alone as ease of travel would be a boon for business travelers and trade, according to Bill Barnett, managing director of hospitality and property consultancy C9 Hotelworks.

But a Schengen-type visa, which allows free travel around the border-free zone within Europe, may be an uphill task given Asean's poor track record in expediting multilateral policy framework and the group's standing as a talk shop.

"Country by country seems to be the best way to do it," Barnett said. "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."

For a joint visa scheme, approvals have to be coordinated and the absence of standard immigration criteria among participating nations unlike the European Union can pose challenges, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor at Chulalongkorn University's political science faculty. Asean, as a grouping is a divided body with a poor immigration record, he said.

With Srettha being neophyte in politics, he may lack the clout to push through the visa proposal, Thitinan said.

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