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Thailand leads push for unified visa to boost tourism in six Southeast Asian countries

The ambitious plan could encourage not only more leisure travel but also trade.

Thailand is leading an initiative for a joint-visa program as Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin ramps up initiatives to attract more long-haul and high-spending travelers, as many parts of the world have seen a boom in tourism.

One visa, six countries

Srettha—who has promised to elevate Thailand’s status as a tourism hotspot and an aviation and logistics hub—takes inspiration from the Schengen visa, which allows free travel around the border-free zone within Europe. He envisions Thailand to share this unified visa with its mainland Southeast Asia counterparts Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam.

The plan is meant to ensure a more seamless mobility for travelers across the six neighboring countries, which together hosted about 70 million tourist arrivals in 2023.

The single-visa plan is the most ambitious among Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin’s lineup of tourism initiatives and is targeted for the long-term. Photo by Mo’s Shop from Unsplash

Thailand and Malaysia accounted for more than half of the tally, generating about $48 billion in tourism revenue.

Most leaders have positively responded to the single-visa concept, with tourism-reliant Thailand aiming to generate more revenue per traveler and cushion its economy from headwinds such as sluggish exports and weak global demand that continue to dampen its manufacturing industry.

It is the most ambitious among Srettha’s lineup of tourism initiatives and is targeted for the long-term.

Thailand’s tourism industry has served the country well, accounting for about 20 percent of total jobs and making up about 12 percent of the nation’s $500 billion economy.

The plan is meant to ensure a more seamless mobility for travelers among six neighboring countries: Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Photo by Ismael Bashiri from Unsplash

As the tourism industry flourishes, Marisa Sukosol Nunbhakdi, a former president of the Thai Hotels Association, said in a Bangkok Post article that a common visa could entice long-haul travelers to make an easier decision to book that flight. She suggested for the visa validity to be extended to 90 days from the usual 30-day period to make it more attractive.

Srettha’s administration has set a goal of attracting 80 million tourists by 2027. Since assuming power in 2023, his government has signed a reciprocal visa waiver deal with China—Thailand’s largest market for tourists—and even offered temporary visa waivers for travelers from India, Taiwan, and Kazakhstan.

An uphill climb

If implemented and executed properly, the benefits of visa-free travel won’t be limited to tourism alone, as ease of travel would be a boon for business travelers and trade as well.

But a Schengen-type visa may be an uphill task given ASEAN’s poor track record in expediting multilateral policy frameworks and the group’s reputation as a mere “talk shop.”

Though met with much enthusiasm, the plan could prove to be an uphill climb given ASEAN’s poor track record in expediting multilateral policy frameworks. Photo by Vicky T from Unsplash

For a joint visa plan, approvals have to be coordinated, and the absence of standard immigration criteria among participating nations, unlike the European Union, can pose challenges, according to Thitinan Pongsudhirak, professor at Chulalongkorn University’s political science faculty, in an article on The Japan Times.

The ASEAN, moreover, is a divided body with a poor immigration record, he explained.

With Srettha being a relative newbie in politics, he may lack the clout to push through the visa proposal, Thitinan added.

“All the various things he’s been trying to do, I see it as picking low-hanging fruits and picking fruits off the ground,” Thitinan said. “Sometimes fruits on the ground are rotten.”

Associate Editor

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