From Hanoi to Bali: When will the dream of visa-free travel in Southeast Asia come true?

By Vi Vu   May 5, 2017 | 02:32 pm GMT+7
From Hanoi to Bali: When will the dream of visa-free travel in Southeast Asia come true?
Foreign tourists taking a rickshaw (cyclo) ride along a street in the old quarter of Hanoi. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam

Travelers might be able to get a single visa for Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors from later this year, according to a Thai official.

Travelers will be able to visit Vietnam and its Southeast Asian neighbors without having to apply for multiple visas if the bloc's members end their decade-long debate and decide to copy Europe’s Schengen model, a Thai official said.

Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, Thailand’s minister of tourism, told travel news site Skift at a tourism conference in Bangkok last week that a single visa for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is being prepared and could be in place as soon as later this year or the beginning of 2018.

She said Thailand is considering a joint deal with Cambodia first and that may expand to Vietnam following the prime minister's request for the tourism and foreign ministries to connect with Thailand and Cambodia to issue a single visa for the three destinations.

If the new policy goes through, it could open up Vietnam to a much bigger tourism market. The country currently offers visa waivers to visitors from 12 Asian and European countries, as well as ASEAN members. Indonesia, one of the world’s most liberalized countries for visas, already grants visa-free travel to 169 countries. Singapore and Malaysia allow nearly 160 nationalities to enter visa-free, and Thailand exempts people from 66 nations.

Luu Duc Ke, director of a major travel company and who has 35 years experience in the industry, said the single visa policy will help with regional integration.

“Of course there will be challenges and problems that come along, but what we gain will be much bigger,” Ke said as cited in a Friday post on the Vietnam ASEAN Portal.

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Elephants spray tourists with water in celebration of the Songkran Water Festival in Ayutthaya Province, Thailand on April 11. Photo by Reuters/Chaiwat Subprasom

Mario Hardy, CEO of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, said in an interview with the Oxford Business Group that the debate over the single ASEAN visa has been going on for over 10 years. He said a single ASEAN visa would encourage long-distance travelers to travel beyond one point and visit multiple countries.

Currently, an American tourist can enter Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand without visas, but they need one for Myanmar and Vietnam.

“Facilitating visas and harmonizing procedures within ASEAN countries should be a key focus of ASEAN’s economic agenda,” he said.

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A light display at Gardens by the Bay in Singapore on May 4. Photo by Reuters/Edgar Su

The new policy will depend on the Open Skies Agreement between the member states. The agreement allows budget carriers to build their brands on technically limitless regional flights, but it has been challenged by infrastructure, with many small airports not ready to deal with a larger volume of flights.

ASEAN countries received 104 million international arrivals in total in 2015. The number is expected to grow by an average of 6.5 percent per year over the next decade, Wattanavrangkul said.

Ha Phuong contributed to this report