Tourist fee is a sick idea

Tourist fee is a sick idea

The plan to charge every visitor a fee to get into the country is taking shape too quickly. For such a radical, untried project, it has received no proper scrutiny. Public health officials, including the minister, Pradit Sintawanarong, have conceived and raised it. They invited virtually no advice, listened to no experts and failed utterly to consider a legion of vital problems. It must be shelved or it will risk huge, humiliating national abuse and failure.

This unique and already controversial plan grew from an actual problem, caused by a tiny number of foreign tourists. Sick or injured, these men and women have checked into hospitals for treatment. Through their own lack of planning and irresponsibility, they have left behind unpaid bills, running into millions of baht a month. Hospitals, with no legal recourse, have asked the government to repay them. Taxpayers thus foot the bill.

This cannot continue. So the health ministry came up with the idea of a cover charge to get into Thailand, as if it were a nightclub. Every tourist will hand over cash as he or she steps inside the country. This will create a fund to pay back hospitals victimised by welching visitors.

The ministry even has a fee schedule. Most visitors will pay 500 baht to enter the country. Those staying three days or less will pay 30 baht per day. That is the first problem. There is no explanation of how _ or to whom _ visitors will prove they owe, say, 60 baht instead of 500. Collecting, protecting and moving huge piles of cash from border posts to secure areas are grey areas. It recalls how officials stole hundreds of millions of baht during the time of the old airport exit-tax machines. Millions in loose cash in dozens of locations every day is not an invitation to integrity.

Given the expected 25 million-plus tourist arrivals in 2014, minister Pradit's designated officials will be collecting 1 billion baht or more per month in cold cash. That is almost 1 billion baht more than required to pay back the hospitals for the millions they lose to deadbeats. And where will this windfall go? Well, the minister isn't sure. He will find some worthy cause.

The major fault of this ill-considered project is its huge unfairness. Every visiting foreigner will have to pay for the problems caused by a tiny few irresponsible visitors. In response, more tourists, probably most, will refuse to pay their medical bills. After all, they were billed at the airport for medical care. Logically, and perhaps legally, that makes the government responsible for their care.

There also is the huge damage to the national image. The Airports of Thailand already vows to raise fees charged to every passenger on every flight. In return for the 100-baht fee increase, AoT promises nothing. Now comes the Ministry of Public Health, with the same promise of no benefit in return for a 500-baht fee. If it smells like a rip-off and looks like a rip-off, tourists will assume it is.

The ministry has not actually found a solution to the very real problem of tourists snubbing hospital bills. It has instead proposed adding further problems.

Requiring visitors to have travel insurance is a possible solution, a step already required of Thai visitors to many countries.

It is fair to demand that each visitor be responsible for his/her actions and his/her debts. But the 500-baht cover charge, in the manner of a cheap nightclub, is a plan that should be abandoned immediately.

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