The Tourism and Sports Ministry is planning to make it compulsory for all foreign tourists to have travel insurance before entering the Kingdom because unpaid bills are putting a huge strain on cash-strapped public hospitals in major destinations, particu
However, some tourism-business operators warn that this measure might keep away travellers as well as tarnish the country’s image.
In a telephone interview with The Nation, Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak said the ministry was readying to implement the regulation to cut down on foreign tourists’ unpaid medical bills that cost the country more than Bt200 million annually.
Somsak is discussing the matter with Public Health Minister Pradit Sintavanarong and Deputy Prime Minister Kittiratt Na-Ranong.
“They agree that foreign tourists should buy an insurance package, which would cost about Bt500,” he said.
This would first be applied to tourists who apply for visa at Thai diplomatic missions overseas. The ministry has yet to decide whether this would apply to those who do not need a visa to enter the country.
According to Yuthachai Soonthronrattnavate, president of the Association of Domestic Travel, tourists coming to Thailand on tour packages are already required to buy travel insurance, which allows them to claim Bt1 million for death and up to Bt500,000 for injuries.
Based on the Tourism Ministry’s data, up to 6.19 million tourists, or about 28 per cent of the total 22.35 visitors, came to as part of a tour package last year. The Kingdom earned Bt984 billion in revenue from tourist spending in 2012, and expects to earn as much as Bt2.2 trillion from visitors in 2015.
Meanwhile, Phuket – a top travel destination – has had to shoulder about Bt5 million a year in medical costs for foreigners who don’t have insurance or are unable to pay for the services, said Dr Bancha Khakhon, chief of the Phuket provincial public health office.
“Whether they can pay or not, it’s our obligation to save their lives first,” he said.
Most of foreign patients in the province were suffering from motorcycle-related road accidents. Some foreign patients who have health insurance are able to receive emergency treatment at private hospitals but for those who do not have are advised to seek treatment at public hospitals.
On top of the unpaid bills, the Public Health Ministry had to cater a special service for foreign patients: through medical mediators, their problems at public and private hospitals would be resolved within 90 days. In 2012, 59 per cent of foreign patients filed complaints to the ministry, mostly about service quality at clinics.
Bancha supported the Tourism Ministry's plan, saying this would help public hospitals financially in the long term.
But Yuthachai of the Association of Domestic Travel disagreed with such an initiative and said it should rather be a ‘‘voluntary’’ measure, not compulsory.
He expected complaints from foreign tourists if this takes effect. While saying that it is too early to estimate the negative impact on the number of tourist arrivals, he said this will surely create a barrier.
Noting that Thailand would have a problem in enforcing this rule on tourists travelling without tour packages, he said the regulation is sending a negative message to the world that accidents are high in Thailand.
He also noted that Thai travellers do not need travel insurance if taking trips to Singapore, Hong Kong, or Malaysia.
He insisted that most foreign individual travellers can take care of themselves. For the minorities, Thailand's third-party motor insurance scheme should be enough to foot their bills.
"Before, there was a counter at the airport to sell travel insurance policies to visitors. That is no longer needed as the living quality in Thailand improves while public health services in Thailand has been recognised internationally," he said.