04/09/2024, 08.35
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Bangkok wants the 'Schengen model' in South-East Asia to drive tourism

by Angeline Tan

Premier Srettha Thavisin presented the idea to counterparts from Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam. It is a move aimed at expanding the flow of visitors to the various countries and to feed the industry's revenues. However, for some experts it would be less streamlined because it requires more coordination in approvals.  


Bangkok (AsiaNews) - Thailand wants to create a free trade area between the countries of South-East Asia on the European Schengen model, to encourage tourism and ensure a further boost to the region's economy.

This is what emerges from a long study published by Bloomberg in recent days, according to which Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin illustrated the idea to her counterparts in Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam, relaunching a project that has been under study for months.

The plan would imply the creation of an area similar to that implemented in the European Union (EU), where it is possible to move within it without the requirement of a passport. This would also allow tourists to travel without a visa within the six nations, generating, according to the Thai prime minister, "a growing number of tourist entries".

Although most leaders applauded the idea, no further details emerge in the report on the stage in which the discussions between the various governments are currently at. Thailand hopes to increase tourism revenue by simplifying travel procedures, providing a useful buffer against other sectors facing challenges, including declining exports and a shrinking manufacturing sector.

In total, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Vietnam welcomed around 70 million tourists last year, with Thai and Malaysian citizens accounting for the majority; the total revenue for the coffers of the various countries from tourism amounts to approximately 48 billion dollars. In particular, tourism in Thailand contributes to employing up to 20% of the overall workforce and produces revenue that is approximately 12% of the country's total economy, amounting to 500 billion dollars.

With the exception of the years of blockades and closures linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, which was also greatly felt in South-East Asia, tourism has been growing and has mitigated the effects of the decline in the manufacturing sector and exports, in past traditional pillars of the Thai economy.

In 2023, the number of foreign tourist arrivals in the kingdom increased by 20% compared to the previous year and exceeded 27 million, the highest number before the lockdowns and closures imposed by the global health emergency. However, Bangkok plans to increase this number to 80 million by 2027 to further increase the sector's earnings.

The Business Times quoted Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, former president of the Thai Hotels Association, as saying that "a common visa could make long-haul travelers have an easier decision."

The validity of the visa, added the expert, will have to be extended to 90 days compared to the current 30 to make it more interesting and attractive. In response to the Thai leader's initiative, the CEO of the real estate and hotel consultancy firm C9 Hotelworks Bill Barnett, interviewed by Bloomberg, believes that it would be easier to apply such visa exemption programs on a country-by-country basis.

“Bilateral agreements, in which governments are at the helm of this type of initiative, make sense because they look outward and not inward” he explains, specifying that the initiative can guarantee further impetus not only to the local tourism industry , but also to business travel and trade.

The idea of establishing a Schengen-like zone in the South-East Asia region has been under study for years, although it has never found real implementation. Already in 2011, Asean (the association bringing together 10 South-East Asian nations) had declared its intention to establish a single visa travel system, but the significant disparities in the visa regimes of individual member states have hindered any progress.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor at the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University, explains that unlike the EU, a single visa system in Southeast Asia would require greater coordination in approvals. In fact, there is the great problem of the scarcity, if not lack, of standardized immigration criteria in each nation that would facilitate approval.

To give an example, last January Thailand itself and China decided to abolish the visa requirement starting from March 1st of this year for their respective citizens, in order to increase bilateral travel and tourism. As a result, Chinese and Thai passport holders can now stay in the two nations for up to 30 days without the need for a visa. At the time of the green light, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that "this visa-free era will bring the flow of people to a new level."

Previously, in November last year the Russian newspaper RBK reported that one of the country's largest private lenders, Tinkoff, has started making Thai baht transfers through the Swift messaging system. A choice linked to the fact that Bangkok is in the list of destinations for international transfers on the Tinkoff website.

This means that private customers of credit institutions can transfer funds to any bank in the kingdom via Swift. The launch of baht money transfers is part of Tinkoff's policy to expand the list of currencies available for international transactions. At the time of reporting, the bank sends funds to more than 30 countries including China and Türkiye. Furthermore, Thailand is a very popular tourist destination among Russians, especially in the winter months.

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