New border regulations add to Thailand’s tourism woes

Faced with a serious crisis in Thailand’s tourism industry, the country’s military regime appears intent on making a bad situation even worse. Not content with overthrowing a democratically-elected government for the umpteenth time, the junta has ordered a tightening of border restrictions.

Immigration officials have been told to deny visitors back-to-back visa waivers. For tourists who enter overland, this means limiting their stay in Thailand to 14 days at a time (except those from Asean and G7 countries who get 30 days), while arrivals by air will be limited to 30 days. Overstayers face much stricter penalties, including hefty fines and lengthy bans.

The most likely effect of this crackdown will be to significantly reduce the amount of time independent travellers spend in Thailand. Tens of thousands of small, often family-run tourism businesses will suffer as a result. Ultimately, it will encourage independent travellers to use neighbouring countries such as Malaysia or Cambodia, as alternative bases to explore the region.

There will also be a major effect on the hundreds of thousands of Westerners who live in Thailand semi-permanently, attracted by the climate, the quality of life and the low cost of living. We cannot understand why a poor country like Thailand would not welcome long-term guests, so long as they behave themselves.

The stated intention of the new regulations – which came into force on August 12 – is to crack down on foreigners who enter Thailand as tourists, and then work illegally. No evidence has been provided that this is even a serious problem, or that if it is, these measures will actually work. After all, Thai immigration officials are not exactly known for their incorruptibility.

Thailand does indeed have have a huge number of undocumented foreign workers (principally from Burma, Laos and Cambodia), but the vast majority of them enter the country illegally. Of these workers, nearly half a million are modern day slaves, amongst the highest totals in the world. (Source: Global Slavery Index 2013).

Of course, without foreign workers – both legal and illegal – some of Thailand’s largest industries, including tourism, construction, fishing, farming and prostitution, would be severely hampered. And that would reduce the flow of dirty money to the armed forces, the police, and their friends in the anti-democratic elite.

The new visa-waiver regulations come at a very bad time for Thailand’s tourism industry. Months of street protests in Bangkok by the so called Yellow Shirts put many holiday-makers off not just the Thai capital, but the nation in general. The first seven months of 2014 saw a 10 per cent drop in visitor numbers.

Although the military coup on May 22 put an end to this disorder, it did nothing to stop the decline in visitor numbers. In fact, the situation became much worse, with arrivals falling by nearly a quarter in June, compared to 2013.

The authorities organised a large street party in late July, as part of efforts to convince potential visitors that Thailand is both safe and happy. But it will take more than smiley balloons and state-mandated happiness to repair the damage caused by the double whammy of street protests and military rule.

If Thailand wants to put the smile back into its reeling tourism industry, then it needs to change its whole mindset. Instead of discouraging long-term visitors, it should make them as welcome as possible, so long as they have adequate funds, and do not break the law.

It should also move away from its obsession with package tourists, and shift its focus to independent travellers. While the former may spend more per day, the latter make up for this by staying much longer, and spending more overall. A free three-month tourist visa on arrival would be a big move in the right direction.

The authorities also need to reassure potential visitors that there will no repeat of the street protests seen over recent years. This means punishing Yellow Shirt leaders for their past disturbances, as well as a firm pledge by the armed forces, police and most importantly the royal family, to respect the democratic will of the Thai people.