Mr Chairat said he agreed with the concerns raised by the Foreign Ministry over national security issues from an influx of arrivals if there is a visa exemption. But it is the duty of immigration officers to develop a thorough inspection process to track down tourists who overstay, he said.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry has proposed a one-year period for free visas for tourists from China, for up to 15 days.
Mr Chairat said the government would lose revenue of about B10 billion in visa fees, but the increase in visitors would offset the fee losses through higher spending from tourists.
He encouraged the government to try the scheme for six months, then assess the results.
“If there are problems, we can stop the measure and return to waiving fees for visas on arrival,” said Mr Chairat. “Without free visas, Thailand might not achieve its goal of 40 million foreign arrivals this year.”
TAT eyes Chinese U-turn
Since the beginning of this year, China market’s has been the epicentre of Thailand’s tourism tremors, prompting Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to work at abating concerns.
Speaking from Shanghai while holding a meeting with directors of five TAT offices in China, TAT Governor Yuthasak Supasorn told the Bangkok Post he listened to the outlook of this market thoroughly and has learned some useful recommendations from tour operators regarding stimulus plans to wake the sleeping giant.
He concluded the dip in Chinese visitors in the first half was understandable if compared with the same period last year, which saw robust growth of 20%. That record is hard to beat, especially given the unprecedented negative factors this year.
However, after learning about the outlook from five regional offices – Beijing, Shanghai, Kunming, Chengdu and Guangzhou – the trend for the third and fourth quarters remains positive as forward bookings of airlines’ seats reached 80% from September.
Some charter flights from China that changed their destination to Vietnam following a safety crisis in Thailand at the end of last year have started to return to Thailand for the coming high season.
“The drop in the Chinese market may spark a panic, but statistically speaking, when comparing the actual number with the rapid growth last year, it's hard to meet the same pace. While waiting for another stimulus package to be approved, we believe we should at least beat the 2017 performance,” Mr Yuthasak said.
TAT still hopes to achieve 11mn Chinese arrivals this year because Chinese tour operators indicated the visa fee waiver is an assurance for them.
If the government works to facilitate this market, such as by providing more multiple-entry visas within a designated period as the Japanese government does, the returns could be significant, he said.
Mr Yuthasak insists there are big markets with good potential this year, such as Russia, which could reach 1.5mn arrivals, and India, which has already grown 20% with the visa-on-arrival waiver, will continue to reach 2mn. (See also “Phuket Tourist Association gets a warm welcome in Siberia”, click here.)
Tourism arrivals should reach 40mn this year, which is moderate relative to available infrastructure, Mr Yuthasak also said.
Visa plan draws flak
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon yesterday (Aug 19) weighed in on the proposal to waive visa requirements for Chinese and Indian tourists, saying he disagreed with granting them “easy access”.
Gen Prawit’s comments echoed concerns raised by the Foreign Ministry which warned of a potentially massive influx of tourists from China and India who might exploit the measure to escape from hardship and settle illegally in Thailand. (See story here.)
“The Foreign Ministry objects to it. Both China and India have huge populations of around 1.3bn people. I disagree with allowing them easy access,” Gen Prawit said.
The visa waiver proposal, expected to be tabled to Cabinet for consideration today (Aug 20), was agreed at a meeting of economic ministers last Friday as a measure to stimulate the economy.
The Tourism and Sports Ministry wanted to launch the initiative for one year on Nov 1, but the Foreign Ministry has warned the waiving of visas needs careful consideration as it will have widespread repercussions on national and economic security.
Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai insisted yesterday the ministry is not “singling out” any country in its opposition to the proposal. Rather, Thailand needs time to improve its infrastructure in order to be able to host more visitors from these countries, he added.
He said visas are part of standard screening measures and increase the country’s efficiency in providing safety to its guests.
“We thank all visitors but we can’t accept them all if we’re not ready. We’ll try to increase our capacity. The main point is that we have to manage [our resources] more efficiently. When we have a good system, we believe visitors will come back,” he said.
Surachai Sirikrai, a special lecturer at Thammasat University’s faculty of political science, said the government should use information from relevant state agencies to analyse the risk of tourists exploiting the system.
He said the proposal could pose a threat to national and economic security if statistics from authorities concerned such as the Immigration Bureau indicate that illegal long stays are likely to increase.
Mr Surachai warned of an apparent lack of effective measures to prevent foreign tourists from violating the terms of their stays such as by working without a permit or overstaying.
“Several countries like South Korea and Japan also use visa waiver programmes to stimulate the economy, but unlike Thailand, they have good measures to keep the tourists from hiding and staying illegally,” he said.
Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn insisted he will put the visa waiver plan to Cabinet for consideration today and brushed aside concerns over the possibility of an increase in overstayers.
He said he was confident in the ability of Thai police to track down illegal immigrants and those who overstay their visas.
Finance Minister Uttama Savanayana yesterday also shrugged off any impact that the proposal being rejected might have, saying the Finance Ministry had other measures to stimulate the economy.
“If it is concluded the measure isn’t necessary, it won’t affect the overall picture of the ministry’s economic stimulus plan. The planned measures focus on boosting local spending too,” he said.
A source at the Bhumjaithai Party said ties between the party and the core coalition party will not be affected by Gen Prawit’s opposition to the proposal.