Even though I travel often for work, I couldn't help but worry on arriving in Seoul at the beginning of the month. Our media trip took place in the midst of a contentious topic as the hashtag #BanTravellingtoKorea rose to the top of the trending list on X in Thailand.
It's not unusual to hear that South Korean immigration officials keep a watchful eye on Thai visitors as a result of issues with illegal workers. Prior to my trip, I read a viral post on social media in which a female traveller claimed to have visited Korea four times, but was sent back to Thailand on a recent visit despite having a return ticket, hotel reservations and tour plans.
This was my fifth visit to the Land of Morning Calm, and it appeared that fortune was on my side since I was able to breeze through immigration. I just presented my passport along with a printout of my travel itinerary and my K-ETA, and an officer let me in without asking any questions.
But later on, I learned that one of my travelling companions, who stood at the counter next to me, experienced difficulties after an official found that the spelling of his last name had been changed. She repeatedly asked him loudly, "Why did you change it?", so we attempted to help him clarify that the previous version had a misspelling. He was only trying to rectify it because Thai and English share the same pronunciation of D and T. Finally, his entry was approved.
This scene brought back memories of my previous visit six years ago. I went to Korea on a press trip sponsored by the Korean Tourism Board (KTO), and one of my media buddies encountered the same situation. However, her luck ran out when an official took her to detention and investigation chamber (known in Thai as a "cold storage").
According to the officials, this was only a ruse used by those who wished to change their identity after being banned from entering Korea. She texted us to ask for assistance, and a KTO executive asked us to explain why we were travelling.
To be honest, we've always been curious what criteria they use in screening visitors. Many Thais are sent away to the cold storage without any inquiries. They are not even allowed to provide their documents.
The KTO executive and my friends said that immigration officials have our data about the number of times we have travelled to Korea, the duration of each visit, and the purpose of our trips. That could possibly be the case.
Back in 2011, I joined a media trip that Samsung arranged to review its latest smartphone and compact camera models. An immigration officer asked me about my job, travel, reason for travel, accommodation and tour schedule, so I showed him an invitation letter and itinerary. That was my first visit to Korea and they asked me a question that one time.
The KTO reported that 269,347 Thai tourists arrived in South Korea between January and September this year, following only Chinese, Japanese, Americans, Taiwanese and Vietnamese tourists. The Thai outbound market reached its peak in 2019, with 571,610 visitors.
I brought up the subject of #BanTravellingtoKorea with my Korean tour guide after reading recent pieces on the subject in Korea's mainstream media. He said that his company specialises in incentive travel and they are worried about this issue and are closely monitoring its potential effects.
He went on to remark that it's difficult to disclose standards immigration officers use to sift through potential visitors. He was aware of what was happening. Some tourists regret wasting their time and money on a trip to Korea they had honestly planned when authorities send them back home.
At the same time, he mentioned that Thailand is the top country in terms of illegal migrant workers in Korea, so that's a reason why Thai citizens are treated harshly by Korean immigration officials. This year, some Thai visitors were also arrested for drug smuggling into the country.
Speaking Thai fluently and having travelled to Thailand several times, my guide shared with me his story of being questioned by Thai immigration officials. The process took too long and he became quite irritated. Fortunately, his entry was accepted.
One of the main attractions to boost tourism is temporary visa exemptions, which allows travellers to save money and time, but it also gives crafty people the chance to commit crimes.
Pattarawadee Saengmanee is a feature writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.