China-Thailand tourism-visa waiver still some way off: minister
The much-anticipated reciprocal tourist-visa waiver between China and Thailand is unlikely to materialise anytime soon, despite the wishes of tourism-business operators in both countries.
At a press conference for Thai media on the sidelines of the 15th China International Travel Mart (CITM) here, Thai Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak said the Kingdom would need some time to strengthen security measures and develop infrastructure to serve the jump in visitor numbers that a waiver would bring.
The government needs more time to prepare infrastructure and the many services needed to cater to an increase in Chinese visitors, Somsak said. Thus, a visa waiver is not on the cards in the short term.
"Currently, Thailand has potential to serve up to 30 million travellers [a year]. The government is afraid that if the visa waiver for the Chinese is done without preparation, it could create problems and inconvenience for travellers, in particular those from China, which is already the biggest source of foreign visitors to Thailand," he said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang floated the idea during his visit to Thailand earlier this month. He told Parliament that his government is willing to hold talks on bilateral visa exemptions for tourists.
Li said a waiver would offer Chinese and Thai tourists more convenience and promote more people-to-people exchanges. From 3 million travelling between the two countries last year, the number is expected to increase to 5 million next year, should a visa waiver be put in place.
China is now the biggest source of tourists to Thailand, with about 3.7 million Chinese visiting in the first nine months of 2013, up 90 per cent over the same period of 2012, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. This year, the number is expected to be 4 million.
Despite the support for the idea among tourism-business operators, Somsak said tourism infrastructure will need to be developed first, ranging from the capacity of airports and accommodations to the availability of cruise services and the provision of safety measures. Chinese-language signs are also necessary to inform travellers of locations and directions. Personnel working in the industry should also be prepared to serve the higher number of Chinese and other foreign visitors.
He did not give a specific date as to when Thailand would be ready for the waiver. He noted that for now, Thailand can facilitate Chinese visitors through the issuance of multiple-entry visas. According to Somsak, the Foreign Affairs Ministry plans to speed up development of an electronic visa-issuance system so that Chinese people will be able to visit more conveniently.
Somsak added that China may be able to waive visas for Thais unilaterally as an initial step, because China has better-developed infrastructure.
TAT Governor Suraphon Svetasreni said the Thai government and private enterprises will try to develop services to serve the rising numbers of Chinese visitors each year. He said Thailand would focus more on quality Chinese tourists from the middle and upper market segments.
Given the Chinese government's policy to eliminate travel agents offering low-quality tours from China to Thailand and other countries, higher-quality Chinese tourists will visit Thailand and spend more, Surasak said.