Last updated: 11:45 AM ET, Fri July 29 2016

How Multi-Country Visas Could Simplify Travel in ASEAN Countries

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | June 20, 2016

How Multi-Country Visas Could Simplify Travel in ASEAN Countries

PHOTO: Phuket, Thailand. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND - It could soon become easier for tourists to travel between countries in Southeast Asia. Taking the podium at the recent Thailand Travel Mart in Chiang Mai, Thai politician Surin Pitsuwan, the former secretary general of ASEAN (from 2008-2012) spoke about the need for a stronger relationship between ASEAN countries. One of the ways to strengthen the bond with one another is to share tourism promotion and revenue.

One visa means more options for travelers

Pitsuwan’s pitch centered around the practical reasons for streamlining the process of tourism in Southeast Asia. The ideal arrangement would be to have one tourist visa for multiple countries. His argument is that, together, the countries would be more attractive to international travelers than they would be individually.

The desires and plans of international arrivals in the region seem to be changing. Pitsuwan explained that “they [tourists] will come to Malaysia, but they will want to come to Phuket too. They come to Bali, but they would want to come to Chiang Mai too… the pattern of consumption of tourism here, on the landscape of ASEAN, is going to change.”

As this kind of dual or multi-destination travel package becomes more common, there will be a need to streamline the visa process, especially for people from outside ASEAN who do not have access to visa-on-arrival arrangements or visa-free travel.

READ MORE: Is Koh Lipe The Most Beautiful Island in Thailand?

A good idea, but...

This seems like a practical idea on the surface, but it could be difficult to execute in the near future because each country in ASEAN has its own immigration and visa policies, not to mention very different approaches to security and screening for inbound travelers. Pitsuwan admitted that “that is something that ASEAN has to work on.”

He went as far as mentioning the fact that corruption still exists in some of the immigration departments of ASEAN member states, saying that some officials will be unwilling to give up the extra income that they pocket from visa application fees.

Starting small

The solution could be to start smaller. Pitsuwan suggested giving foreign tourists in Thailand a one week connecting visa to the other countries in Mainland Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam).

The limited amount of time would give immigration officials a high level of control over who was entering their country and how long they were staying. “That would make it much easier to attract… tourists from around the world.”

READ MORE: Hey ASEAN! Feel Free to Move About the Region

The most likely option for travelers who will be heading to the region over the next few years: two-country visa. Rather than trying to blanket the whole region with a single visa, two countries could make an agreement for some sort of visa deal. For example, Thailand could make a deal with Myanmar that would allow tourists to travel from Bangkok or Chiang Mai to visit the ruins of Bagan without having to apply for a completely new visa.

Low-cost carriers could spur demand 

Low-cost carriers, which are now expanding their services to secondary cities in ASEAN countries, could actually drive demand for this kind of bilateral visa agreement. If tourists can fly directly between two destinations instead of going through a country’s main international hub - from Luang Prabang to Siem Reap, for example - they would benefit from a multi-country visa.

There are plenty of roadblocks, but if Pitsuwan’s idea becomes a reality, then travel around the region could become easier for tourists, and creating itineraries could become much simpler for travel agents.

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