Visa exemption called for as tourism drags

Visa exemption called for as tourism drags

AirAsia chief says industry needs more stimulus, and region's airports need more capacity

Chiang Mai and other provinces in Thailand await more tourists. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)
Chiang Mai and other provinces in Thailand await more tourists. (Photo by Pattarapong Chatpattarasill)

The government is being urged to make big tourism markets, notably China and India, visa-exempt as part of attempts to revive sluggish tourism.

Tassapon Bijleveld, chief executive of Asia Aviation Plc (AAV), the major shareholder of Thai AirAsia, said the government must offer new incentives to lure foreign visitors amid the slowdown in the tourism sector.

Stimulus plans should be introduced because the growth in the number of foreign arrivals has slowed considerably, he said.

Foreign arrivals grew by 1.5% to 19.76 million in the first half of the year. Visitors from China, the biggest tourism market for Thailand, were down 4.7% at 5.65 million.

The government should immediately consider extending the waiver of visa-on-arrival (VOA) fees for 21 countries, including China and India, Mr Tassapon said.

The VOA scheme was put in place last year and renewed twice, providing a 2,000-baht waiver for tourists from 21 countries until the end of October.

"The weakened yuan and strong baht are factors directly affecting Chinese visitors, as the volatile currency adds 20% in costs to Chinese visitors," Mr Tassapon said.

Meanwhile, AirAsia group chief executive Tony Fernandes said the VOA waiver has improved the tourism situation in Thailand.

But negative factors are becoming more challenging, such as the weaker yuan compared with the baht, he said, and AirAsia has to continue expanding to find new opportunities and markets.

In Thailand, there are various destinations that have potential as new markets, Mr Fernandes said, thus it’s the right time to push the opening of new airports with the right price.

"Our policy since we started this airline 18 years ago is to make everyone fly," he said. "But airport taxes and charges are increasing. Some 600 million people have flown with AirAsia because of low fares.

"Every day we try to lower the cost to bring fares down. All we have asked the airport to do is help make fares cheaper for passengers. Allow people to fly democratically, don't just limit travel to the rich."

Speaking on a visit to Bangkok on Friday, Mr Fernandes said that despite the group’s relentless efforts to expand to new destinations, what is holding Southeast Asia back overall is low airport capacity.

Myanmar, for instance, has high potential for seaside tourism, but its airports are not yet ready to handle many more visitors.

In the next two weeks, Mr Fernandes and Mr Tassapon will speak to top officials in Cambodia regarding greater cooperation with that country.

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