The pandemic has made every country realise their economies cannot thrive with closed borders.
Freedom to travel is the key to fuelling economic growth and accelerating the post-pandemic recovery as tourism and trade activities can increase without border restrictions.
China's three-year border shutdown offered an example of the impact on the world's largest tourism market, as Thailand still struggles to attract travellers from the mainland.
Many governments are working to increase tourism competitiveness, offering incentives to lure foreign visitors and develop air travel routes.
Key initiatives include visa policies and digitalisation of the pre-travel process, in line with border controls.
LURING LARGE POPULATIONS
Attracting visitors from China and India, the two most populous countries in the world, has become a key agenda for Thailand and many other countries.
Last year, Kazakhstan offered a visa-free scheme to visitors from China, India and Iran. This year, China implemented a reciprocal policy by granting visa exemptions for people from Kazakhstan, enabling visitors from both countries to travel freely for 30 days per trip.
With a mutual agreement signed in 2022, travellers from the Maldives and China can visit each destination without a visa from early 2023, while India already received this privilege from the island chain.
Sri Lanka last month granted temporary visa-free travel to seven countries: China, India, Russia, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Vietnam is considering allowing visa-free entry for Indian travellers, while the South African tourism minister is seeking to waive or ease visas for visitors from both China and India.
For Thailand, the government offers a visa exemption on a temporary basis for four countries -- China, India, Kazakhstan and Taiwan -- with a 30-day stay per entry.
According to online travel agent Agoda, searches for Thailand among Indian and Taiwanese travellers increased by 26% during the 10 days after the visa-free policy started.
The tourist visa normally costs around 1,000 baht, and visa on arrival costs 2,000 baht.
At present, 61 countries and territories are eligible to visit Thailand without a visa, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
The main question for officials is whether these measures really help to increase tourism revenue.
Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said the visa exemptions will definitely create travel momentum through next year, helping to convince tourists they are welcome here.
Tourists admire the sights along the Chao Phraya River on board a boat near Rajinee Pier in the Pak Klong Talad neighbourhood. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
Mr Adith said sluggish Chinese arrival totals this year is not the result of competitors offering similar incentives, but rather the Thai tourism industry having a negative or unsafe image among potential travellers on the mainland, in addition to an economic slump.
Chinese bookings from both independent travellers and tour groups have gradually improved in the latter part of this year, he said.
Mr Adith said the visa exemptions help tourists save on costs, especially for price-sensitive markets like Indian tour groups, who often choose Thailand over Turkey or Azerbaijan.
"The government should extend the visa-free scheme until the end of 2024," said Santisuk Klongchaiya, chief executive of Thai AirAsia.
He said the policy has stimulated air travel through the first quarter of next year.
India and South Asia have been among the strongest performing routes since the beginning of this year, with flight capacity rising to 96% of the 2019 level in the third quarter of 2023, said Mr Santisuk.
For routes to China, the number of flights was 71 per week in the third quarter, a recovery of only 37% as Chinese tourists are more likely to travel domestically, he said.
During the first 10 months of this year, data from online travel platform Trip.com showed flight bookings for Thailand-China routes soared 42.2% from the same period in 2019.
The Chinese government plans to beef up its inbound market by simplifying the visa application process for tourists from several countries, in addition to removing its requirement for an Entry Health Declaration Card, the latter of which helped to increase bookings by Thailand-based travellers to China by 102%, according to Trip.com.
Extending the period of stay can also accelerate tourism expenditure. In Southeast Asia, Malaysia extended the period of stay for Hong Kong nationals to 90 days from June, up from 30 days, while Vietnam extended e-visa stays to 90 days and revised visa-free stays to 45 days from 15 days for some nations.
Costa Rica allowed Group One tourists, such as from the US and Canada, to stay up to 180 days, from 90 days.
For Thailand, the government recently allowed Russians to stay up to 90 days without a visa, increasing from 30 days.
The Tourism Association of Koh Samui estimates this policy will potentially attract long-stay guests and remote workers to Thailand's beach destinations.
The Thai government is also considering extending visa-free stays from 30 days for some countries in the near future.
The Thai Hotels Association said the extensions might only benefit long-haul travellers who typically stay here for weeks or months in the cool season. However, short-haul markets might not extend their stays because their travel behaviour tends towards short but frequent trips, said the group.
Omri Morgenshtern, chief executive of Agoda, said tourists who stay longer tend to explore lesser-known parts of the market, rather than key tourist destinations. As a result, it provides opportunities for smaller independent properties in the provinces to campaign and capture more tourists, he said.
The Pheu Thai Party pledged to increase Thailand's passport power, which allows Thais to visit more destinations without a visa.
Thailand is ranked 64th in the Henley Passport Index, alongside Belarus and Lesotho, scoring 79.
Singapore secured the top spot as the world's most powerful passport with a score of 192.
If travellers can visit a destination without a visa, or can apply for visa on arrival, an electronic travel authorisation or a visitor's permit upon entry, a score is given to their passport.
If a traditional visa, a government-approved e-visa, or a pre-departure approval for a visa on arrival is required, the passport earns no score.
Indian travellers have increased after the visa-free policy started. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
Agoda data revealed the top five outbound markets for Thai travellers through Nov 14 were visa-free destinations: Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Chotechuang Soorangura, vice-president of the Thai Travel Agents Association (TTAA), said destinations that offer visa waivers for Thais have an advantage in attracting new tourists and repeat visitors than destinations that still require visas, such as Europe.
As some Thai travellers choose their destinations based on their desires without visa considerations, he said TTAA previously asked European embassies about possibly waiving the Schengen travel visa for Thai visitors before the pandemic.
Roughly 1.5 million Thais visited European countries in 2019.
However, those proposals were not successful, and outbound trips to Europe have slowed as airfares remain high after borders were reopened.
About two-thirds of the world's population need to obtain a traditional visa prior to departure, said Nick Careen, senior vice-president for operations, safety and security at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Speaking at the Annual General Meeting & World Air Transport Summit earlier this year, Mr Careen said IATA is calling for the simplification of entry requirements and pre-travel verification.
Many good examples of simplification have occurred in recent decades. South Korea added China to its visa waiver programme for Jeju Island in 2008 and Chinese arrivals rose by 64.5% in 2009 from the 2005 level.
Offering visas on arrival for 11 nationalities travelling to India in 2010 helped increase visitors from these markets by 10.6%, he said.
Chinese tourists visit Thailand.
Pre-travel verification should be facilitated by solutions such as digitalising travel documents, and utilising technologies to provide immigration, security and customs information to authorities in advance of travel, said Mr Careen.
In the long run, IATA is advocating the One ID solution to streamline passenger journeys with advanced information sharing and a contactless experience at the airport, with biometric-enabled processes.
This standard allows passengers to submit required documents to authorities ahead of travel, preventing those reported inadmissible or having inappropriate documents, he said.
Then authorities would issue a "notification of admissibility" to passengers' digital wallets as a verifiable credential, which passengers can share with airlines directly.
In turn, airlines would save time on the verification process at the airport and prevent errors from data input, while airports could utilise more space from reduced queues, according to IATA.
DIGITALISING BORDER CONTROLS
Countries are relying more on digitalising security and border controls before arrival, launching more electronic travel authorisation (ETA) and e-visa programmes.
For instance, Europe is set to implement the ETIAS programme in 2025 for passport holders eligible for a visa waiver, allowing them to pre-register before their trips.
The UK just launched its own ETA in this month, testing it with Qatari nationals.
The UK plans to roll out the scheme for other nationals from the Gulf Cooperation Council from February next year, then expand it to other markets in the future.
The same system applies for South Korea's K-ETA, well-known to many Thai travellers, as it requires passport holders from some visa-exempted nations to fill in information to improve immigration clearing.
The e-visa market is forecast to grow by 11.3% between 2021 and 2028, according to Data Bridge Market Research.
Russia introduced its first e-visa to 55 countries in August 2023, including India, Japan, Turkey, and European nations such as Switzerland.
Indian applications for Thailand's e-visa on arrival (E-VOA) surged by seven times between March 2022 and last month, said VFS Global, an outsourcing visa service.
Some 13 nations are eligible to apply for a Thai E-VOA, including Bulgaria, Bhutan and Cyprus.