Breaking down borders
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Breaking down borders

Visa-free travel is increasingly spreading around the world, and while it can increase tourism, it can also encourage illegal work

Tourists take snaps at Promthep Cape in Phuket. (Photo: Bangkok Post)
Tourists take snaps at Promthep Cape in Phuket. (Photo: Bangkok Post)

There was a post-pandemic international travel revival last year after many governments pivoted to a visa-free policy in order to fix their sluggish economies via revenue generated from foreign tourists.

The policy helped Thailand gain 28 million arrivals in 2023, thanks to strong figures in the final quarter, which directly benefited from visa exemptions granted to citizens of China, India, Taiwan and Kazakhstan, as well as an extension to 90 days of the period of stay granted to Russian nationals.

Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents, said visa-free schemes have become a common practice among many countries of varying economic scale that wish to to stimulate their economy through international tourism.

Even China, the world's second largest economy, tested the water by waiving visa requirements for six countries -- comprising five European nations and Malaysia -- in November last year.

During the first 30 days, arrivals from these countries to China soared 28.5%, leading Beijing to expand the policy to include other nations, including permanent agreements with Thailand and Singapore, Mr Adith said.

Earlier this month, China extended the visa exemption policy to six additional European countries to facilitate inbound tourists.

In Thailand, the success of the visa exemption scheme has been seen in the Chinese and Taiwanese markets, and the positive momentum from visa privileges would continue this year, he said.

So far, there have not been any negative incidents, so Thailand would easily secure 8 million Chinese arrivals and create a new record of 1 million Taiwanese arrivals, said Mr Adith.

"Tourism operators have been told that the government will extend the visa exemption to both Taiwan and India for one year once the initial period for the first phase ends in May this year. This policy will help keep positive momentum for the whole year," he said.

Sarayuth Mallam, vice-president of the Phuket Tourist Association, said Phuket has been seeing higher demand from long-stay tourists, particularly residents of Russia and Ukraine who are relatives but have found it difficult to meet each other due to the ongoing war.

"Many of them decided to relocate to Phuket instead and bought two houses in the same village, so they could live together," he said.


Last week, a Norwegian and a British national were caught working illegally in the tourism sector in Koh Phangan and Phuket, respectively, while a number of Russians were found guilty of opening their own businesses without permission. The most recent case was an illegal beauty clinic on Koh Samui.

Amid growing concerns over crowded destinations, there have also been worries over criminals exploiting the visa-free policy and entering Thailand without restriction.

Mr Sarayuth said Russian travellers granted the visa-free privilege since before the pandemic remain a huge market for the island.

Of all Russian arrivals, 98% were considered to be good tourists who intended to travel for leisure purposes, while about 2% were those pretending to be tourists but ended up working illegally, he said.

"As we regularly cooperate with Phuket police, we're informed about criminals who exploit the visa privileges and extended staying period which are meant to facilitate long-stay tourists. The Russian Consulate in Phuket agreed to Thai authorities helping to diminish Russian criminals in Thailand as they destroyed the reputation of the nation," said Mr Sarayuth.

However, he believes granting visa waivers to foreign tourists creates more benefits than disadvantages as it paves the way to new markets and segments with high potential.

He said that even though international flights to Phuket are expected to fully recover, except Chinese charter flights, independent Chinese tourists on the island are the new growing segment with high spending power.

They help increase income for various local businesses as their activities and meals are not restricted to certain restaurants or shops like those coming with tour groups.

Kazakh tourists are also one of the most promising markets for Phuket, as they tend to come with a family group and spend on local services, such as using ride-hailing services, and do not just rent vehicles like typical Russians.

Mr Adith said not only foreigners cause problems, as Thai citizens have also exploited visa-free privileges and worked illegally in many countries.

For example, New Zealand previously granted visa exemptions for Thais, but due to a large number of illegal workers going to the country and overstaying the eligible period, the privilege was revoked in 2001.

Meanwhile, a strict screening process at South Korean immigration over the past few years has been attributed to an influx of illegal Thai workers.


Even though the benefits of a visa-free policy was huge, it might not be necessary to implement permanent exemptions to all countries, said Mr Adith.

"The government should rather consider using this tool on a case-by-case basis to ensure a more effective result," he said.

He said over-tourism has been a critical problem for Thailand for many years.

Instead of granting free visas at all ports of entry, he said the government should consider promoting second-tier destinations that have the potential to welcome foreign tourists but still lack sufficient demand.

Mr Adith said there are six airports in six provinces that could be upgraded if using the visa-free policy -- U-tapao Airport in Chon Buri, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Chiang Rai, Krabi, and Hat Yai in Songkhla.

"Before lifting visa requirements for Thailand this month, Hainan province in China already granted a visa exemption for Thais flying direct to its cities with an eligible period of 30 days," he said.

Mr Adith said tour operators will agree to help bring charter flights or persuade airlines to add services to those cities if there are incentives to help promote new destinations.

Meanwhile, he said extending the period of stay might attract more grey business to Thailand.

Preventive measures, such as criminal record checks before screening at immigration, are critical methods.

He suggested the government study existing data of travellers, looking at the average length of stay of each nationality and providing an appropriate period for them.

For instance, existing data of Chinese travellers showed that they mostly stayed for seven days, so 15-30 days already fits their requirements, while 30 days for some European guests is sufficient.

"The longer we extend the eligible period of stay, the more we have to accept that it may also attract more people coming for jobs or taking advantage of the rising tourism industry here," said Mr Adith.

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