Cabinet to talk visa-free China policy
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Cabinet to talk visa-free China policy

Waiver set to increase work for immigration, police

Chinese tourists feed pigeons while enjoying a sightseeing cruise on the Chao Phraya River in front of Wat Rakhang Khositaram in the capital in March. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
Chinese tourists feed pigeons while enjoying a sightseeing cruise on the Chao Phraya River in front of Wat Rakhang Khositaram in the capital in March. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

The proposed visa-free policy for Chinese visitors, widely tipped as a potent short-term tourism stimulus, will be brought up at the first cabinet meeting this week as workloads for authorities implementing the measure are set to mount.

The issue is being raised for discussion at the first cabinet meeting since the new ministers swore their oath of office.

That testifies to the government's commitment to boosting tourism, one of the country's prime foreign exchange earners, said Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on Saturday.

More specific details are expected to be fleshed out during the cabinet meeting ahead of its launch on Oct 1. His remark came as major tourism provinces are gearing up for the upcoming visa waiver for Chinese visitors.

An optimistic note

The tourism sector has reacted optimistically to the policy to spur arrivals of Chinese tourists, who make up a significant segment of international visitors.

The stimulus is being trumpeted by Mr Srettha, who prioritises tourism as an economic growth driver. One of his first tasks as premier was to tour Phuket to get first-hand insights into the tourism situation.

He has outlined a temporary visa-free policy for Chinese visitors to stimulate the tourism sector in the short term. It is expected to be in effect until the end of the high tourist season in the first quarter of next year.

The sector needs a shot in the arm after it was brought to its knees by more than three years of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The policy is viewed as the biggest revitalisation measure to date, as the country has granted a visa-fee waiver to Chinese tourists on occasions in the past.

Pol Col Thanet Sukkachai, chief of Phuket immigration office, said the office had no problem with the visa-free policy.

The office runs the so-called "white accommodation" programme which keeps track of where tourists are staying on the island province and also forges closer relations between tourist attractions and residents.

Thanet: Says more tourists, more rules

A higher workload

The tourist police are directly in charge of taking care of foreign visitors. However, local police will step in to help visitors sort out any issues with visa expirations or extensions.

"We will be working harder (once the visa-free policy is launched).

"It goes with the territory of pulling in more overseas tourists by means of relaxing some of the rules," Pol Col Thanet said.

He added the policy entails additional work to be processed by state authorities.

Chinese tourists make up the largest group of foreign visitors to Phuket, at 60,000 last month, followed by Russians and Australians. Phuket welcomed 300,000 foreign visitors last month.

The immigration office chief said that by making visitors traceable, the authorities have managed to deter crimes and provide assistance to tourists as and when it is needed.

The system has propelled Phuket's growth into a world-class destination.

Last week, the Immigration Bureau (IB) said a visa waiver could create a loophole through which operators of call centre gangs, illegal businesses and other transnational crimes could slip into the country.

The bureau also said its workload will multiply as it tries to catch such elements once they enter the country.

The policy, it is feared, would also worsen congestion at immigration counters.

In Chiang Mai, governor Nirat Pongsitthithaworn said on Saturday that state agencies were gathering input on the strengths and weaknesses of local tourism and how to create dynamics in the sector.

The province's tourism is bouncing back close to pre-pandemic levels.

In the first eight months of this year, tourism generated 63 billion baht in revenue for Chiang Mai.

That number is forecast to rise to 80 billion baht on tourist arrivals of 8.8 million before the year is out, the governor said.

Mr Nirat said measures to boost confidence were underway to counter negative images of Thailand being circulated on Chinese social media, particularly regarding safety, which have made some reluctant to travel.

The visa-free scheme would come in handy in picking up the slow pace of Chinese visitors' arrivals.

Nirat: Wants a boost of confidence in Thailand

Also, Kemchart Somjaiwong, honorary chairman of the Khon Kaen chamber of commerce, said the visa waiver would do much to revitalise as Oct 1 coincides with the long week celebrating China's national day.

The last quarter of the year also typically marks a busy tourism period right up to the New Year.

The visa-free policy, while being a tourism cash generator, would also require a tighter screening of visitors.

Mr Kemchart said post-pandemic foreign visitors tend to travel mostly to major tourist provinces.

He advised the government and tourism businesses to promote other provinces so the revenue will be spread more evenly.

That would ensure the benefits of the visa-free initiative trickle down to people in the commercial tourism ecosystem.

He added the visa-free policy should be reciprocated by China.

Repairing bad publicity

Meanwhile, Soratheproj Pojanarat, deputy spokesman of the Thai Sang Thai Party, called on the government and the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to work quickly to repair the negative publicity around the tourist safety issue in Thailand.

If left untackled, the problem will have a long-term detrimental impact, he said, explaining safety concerns look certain to outlast the visa-free scheme.

Adith Chairattananon, honorary secretary-general of the Association of Thai Travel Agents (Atta), said removing the red tape in visa applications typically contributes to an 8.1% increase in travel whereas a visa waiver doubles that number. He was citing 2017 figures from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The findings are meaningful as those making the trips with visa on arrival (VOA) make up 80% of global travellers.

He estimates the visa-free policy could bring around 500,000 to 700,000 additional Chinese visitors in the last quarter of this year.

"The point is when this measure goes ahead, the IB will need to operate an efficient immigration management system to prevent overcrowding at border check-in points," he said.

Chattan Kunjara Na Ayudhya, TAT deputy governor for marketing communications, said the planned visa-free policy has been well-received in China.

Adith: Highlights need to prevent over-crowding

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