A tourism hub mustn't make life so difficult

A tourism hub mustn't make life so difficult

Thailand has facilities to welcome more tourists, including cases of medical tourism, but immigration facilities are far from ready. (File photo)
Thailand has facilities to welcome more tourists, including cases of medical tourism, but immigration facilities are far from ready. (File photo)

Over the past few days, the Prayut Chan-o-cha government has taken some interesting steps. And a lot of them are new measures aimed at possibly boosting Thailand's status as a tourism hub, be it for health care, long-term stays or even general tourists.

Tourism is a big part of Thailand's overall economy, accounting for just over 11% of gross domestic product (GDP). The country, however, has recently experienced a slowdown in tourism following the crackdown on "zero dollar" tour scams and the month-long mourning period for His Majesty the late King.

Therefore, the cabinet's decision on new visa measures made in its meeting this week could help stimulate the tourism sector. It is a good sign that those in power show they do care about the number of inbound tourists and the potential they hold.

The cabinet's approval of new visa measures include multiple-entry, 10-year visas for senior tourists who are over 50 years of age, a temporary reduction in fees for visas on arrival to 1,000 from 2,000 baht, and the waiver of visa fees for foreign visitors from 19 countries.

Umesh Pandey is Editor, Bangkok Post.

The government will also offer additional privileges for tourists coming from the Chinese territories of Hong Kong and Macau, as well as Taiwan as they present high potential for Thai tourism.

The visa fee waiver and reduction measures will be in effect for three months starting next month.

In introducing these measures, the government aims to attract at least 350,000 more tourists and generate up to 29 billion more baht in revenue.

Over the past few years, Thailand has been relying heavily on its tourism sector to keep the economy going. It is hoping to boost the number of inbound tourists to 32.4 million from the 29.9 million figure of 2015. With this projection, the government expects gross revenue from tourism of up to 1.63 trillion baht in 2016, an 11% increase from last year.

What is more interesting is the measure to attract long-term stay tourists. This measure has various stringent clauses attached to it. For example, applicants for the 10-year visa, or the so called "retirement visa", would need to submit a bank statement showing a deposit of at least 3 million baht which has been in the account for at least one year. They must also have health insurance (both outpatient and inpatient of $1,000 and $10,000 annually), not to mention that these long-term stay tourists would have to report to the immigration office every 90 days.

I certainly support some of these measures that are being put in place. After all, we do not want to simply attract low-spending tourists as this would not help shore up tourism revenue and ease the state's strained finances.

Having both inpatient and outpatient coverage is a must because at the age of 50 or above, there is always the potential need for medical treatment in some form or another. The finances of long-term tourists must also be assured and therefore these steps are certainly reasonable.

But if one looks a little deeper into this move, it appears that the cabinet is being far too stringent. As the period of the retirement visa is going to be increased from one year to 10 years, the requirement that each of these retirees needs to report to the immigration office every 90 days is going to be one of the biggest challenges.

Although the country has many such offices in many cities, anyone who goes to one of them knows how painstaking a process it really is.

At any given time, the process at the immigration office, either in Bangkok or Chiang Mai, can take many hours as there are extremely long queues as crowds come very early in the morning to be able to get things done and save most of their work day or class time.

From talks I have had with students who are on exchange programmes, who also must report to the immigration office every 90 days, I am told that this process takes three to five hours, if not longer.

What needs to be thought through is whether our infrastructure is ready to handle the higher number of tourists, especially tourists who may not be in the best of health but who could be tapped for potential growth in medical tourism. Imagine these frail souls standing and waiting for hours on end in long queues to "report" to immigration officers.

What the government needs to realise is that unlike the private sector, which has established infrastructure to help it deal with a surge in customers and tourists, the public sector continues to lag. Reforms are needed for the public sector to help the government create the best environment for the medical tourism hub to take shape and make this dream come true.

Umesh Pandey

Bangkok Post Editor

Umesh Pandey is Editor, Bangkok Post.

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