Thailand & China: Historic Visa-Free pact boosts tourism and ties. PM Srettha Thavisin announces a groundbreaking move confirming permanent visa-free access between China and Thailand.

On Tuesday, Thai Prime Minister Srettha announced that visa-free access between China and Thailand in both directions would become a permanent arrangement from March 1st 2024. The move is a highly significant one. It has implications not only for tourism but in the short term, for security and in the long term Thailand’s relations with China. It comes at a time when international tensions between Beijing and Western allies are rising. On Tuesday, however, Prime Minister Srettha, playing to his government’s new foreign policy agenda, highlighted that the announcement strengthened the power of Thailand’s passport abroad.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on Tuesday announced the permanent introduction of visa-free travel between China and Thailand. Mr Srettha highlighted that the move would strengthen the power and value of the Thai national passport.

In a significant move poised to reshape the links between the two countries, Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin unveiled on January 2, 2024, a decision that will see Thailand waiving the need for formal visas from Chinese tourists.

It is a reciprocal move but will mean, from now on, Chinese nationals can visit Thailand by hopping on a plane with their passports.

The new dispensation poses, at the same time, a significant challenge to the Royal Thai Police given the sharp rise in criminality being exported from China in the last decade.

On the other hand, visa-free regimes are also open to European countries. These arrangements have been ongoing for decades now.

Security concerns over closer ties with China are real. However, Thai Police have expressed confidence in recent times the force can manage the threat

Additionally, the Royal Thai Police Immigration Bureau now deploys stronger screening of all incoming tourists using advanced database technology. The police are also working closely with Chinese police authorities through the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok.

Thai police have recently expressed confidence in their ability to protect the country and national security against the threat posed.

Nonetheless, the previous National Police Commissioner General Damrongsak Kittiprapas raised the issue in 2023. Certainly, Deputy National Police Chief General Surachate Hakparn voiced similar concerns last week. He was dealing with a case of a jilted Thai bride who claimed Chinese men were using Thai women to have sons.

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The decision to be signed into force by Thailand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukaraon, during an up-and-coming trip to Beijing is seen as a boost for foreign tourism.

Thailand saw 3.5 million Chinese tourists in 2023. Previously, the Foreign Ministry objected to visa-free access for Chinese tourists even temporarily

It comes as figures just released show China sent 3.5 million visitors to Thailand in 2023. The country was Thailand’s second-largest market despite an economic downturn on the mainland. Malaysia was the biggest market with 4.5 million arrivals.

Previously, visa-free entry for Chinese tourists was resisted, even on a temporary basis, by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It is now scheduled to come into effect permanently on March 1, 2024.

Meanwhile, business leaders are already anticipating the permanent visa-free arrangement. Of course, it is seen as a catalyst for an upsurge in tourism. Simultaneously, it also strengthens bilateral ties and economic collaboration between the two countries.

At the same time, Thai travellers will also be able to travel to China without a formal visa.

This will consequently underpin the power of the national passport. At length, the move also raises questions about the lack of reciprocity between Thailand and Western countries which enjoy visa-free access to the Kingdom or visa on arrival.

The news came following a Cabinet meeting at Government House on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, who also serves as the Finance Minister, addressed the nation.

The announcement was a culmination of strategic discussions between Thai and Chinese authorities. In short, he said it signals a new era of cooperation.

Prime Minister Srettha heralded the decision as a momentous one. He also underlined that the decision strengthened the power of the Thai passport abroad

The primary objective of this momentous move, he underlined, was to stimulate tourism and fortify the economies of both Thailand and China. Prime Minister Srettha expressed his confidence in the move, stating: ‘This is considered to elevate the importance of Thai passports for tourists wanting to come to both countries.’

The decision marks a shift from the previous temporary visa-free program, set to expire on February 29, 2024. The permanence of the new visa exemption for Chinese passport holders is striking. 

It is bound to have wider repercussions.

In view of the powerful dynamics that have developed between China and Thailand over the last decade, it cannot be underestimated. This includes Chinese investment in Thai property. At the same time, the country saw an influx of Chinese entrepreneurs and grey capital.

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In November, a proposal was put forward by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to allow Chinese police to patrol in the Kingdom. In short, the plan was scrapped within hours due to adverse political and public reaction.

Concern about Chinese influence in the kingdom persists after disturbing revelations in 2023 linked to mafia groups and Beijing’s aggressive posture

However, there is concern about rising Chinese influence within the country. At length, this was something alluded to frequently by whistleblower and former massage parlour boss Chuwit Kamolvisit throughout 2023.

It followed disquieting revelations from the end of 2022 into 2023 of huge Chinese mafia gangs moving into Thailand.

Numbering in the tens of thousands, they managed to undermine and subvert the country’s visa system while establishing a range of legitimate business concerns. They also bought up Thai businesses while procuring citizenship for newborn Chinese babies.

China’s Embassy calls on Thai media to censor its coverage of Taiwan to protect relationships

Likewise, in November, just days before the revelation relating to Chinese police patrols, there was another story. The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok ordered Thai media to censor its coverage of Taiwan.

In brief, it warned that a broadcast on the respected Thai PBS  channel with Taiwan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs had ‘viciously attacked the proposal of a peaceful reunification of China’.

Tourism trade from China critical to Thailand’s foreign tourism economy. Thailand received over 28 million foreign tourists in 2023 but they spent less

Nonetheless, Thailand has long been a favoured destination for Chinese tourists, with millions visiting annually. It was the country’s largest market in 2019 when over 11 million Chinese flew in.

The reciprocity of permanent visa exemptions is expected to streamline travel procedures. Similarly, today’s announcement is expected to lead to stronger cultural and people-to-people connections.

The Minister of Tourism and Sports, Sudawan Wangsuphakitkoson, has just released encouraging data for 2023. The numbers show that over 28 million visitors arrived in the country last year.

Previously, the target set was 30 million. However, analysts suggest it highlights the resilience of Thailand’s critical foreign tourism sector. 

As well as that, there was also mixed news on foreign tourist spending.

Rather than spending just over ฿50,000 as they did in 2019, the spend per head dropped to ฿44,300. Foreign tourists in 2023 spent a substantial ฿1.2 trillion within the economy. In contrast, the figure four years ago was ฿2 trillion.

The reason was fewer visitors and more short-haul Asian tourists.

The top five countries sending tourists to Thailand were Malaysia, China, South Korea, India, and Russia. Between them, they accounted for 46% of all foreign tourists in 2023.

Thai officials are relieved by the 2023 outcome but some disturbing questions remain about the country’s foreign tourism performance after the pandemic 

Despite a marginal decrease in the last week of the year, attributed to delayed travel plans, the overall figures are encouraging.

Thai officials are reportedly reassured of Thailand’s enduring appeal as a global tourist destination. 

At the same time, the disturbing length of time Thailand is taking to recover from the pandemic disaster is worrying. So is the shift and reliance on lower-spending Asian tourists.

Thailand wants to see far more US and Canadian tourists as long-haul visitors spend twice as much

The timing of this announcement is significant. In brief, we are told it aligns with Thailand’s broader efforts to boost its international standing and economic partnerships.

The Prime Minister’s emphasis on Tuesday on raising the pride and power associated with Thai passports is noteworthy. It reflects a strategic intent to enhance the country’s global influence. 

Bold move from March 1st 2024 represents a significant closing of ties between China and Thailand as it creates something akin to a common travel area

However, the reciprocal permanent visa exemption is not merely a diplomatic gesture. It is a tangible step towards fostering stronger bonds between Thailand and China.

In short, it represents a step towards a common travel area.

Foreign Minister Parnpree Bahiddha-Nukara quickly announced plans to visit China.

The trip will see the formalisation of the permanent visa-free agreement. This diplomatic mission reveals the gravity of the announcement. It is a significant and overt strengthening of Thai-Chinese relations.

The decision holds immense promise for economic collaboration between the two nations. By facilitating seamless travel, it will boost tourism-related industries, such as hospitality, transportation, and local businesses that cater to international visitors. 

The permanence of the visa exemption adds a layer of certainty. This is likely to encourage long-term planning and investment in the tourism sector. Especially relating to Chinese visitors

The strategic importance of tourism in Thailand’s economic development cannot be overstated. It was brought home during the pandemic and in its aftermath.

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Indeed, the Thai economy, while foreign tourism technically accounts for 12.5% of GDP, depends on the industry for up to 25% of wider employment. Significantly, it also brings valuable foreign currency income.

Visa-free move announced on Tuesday did not come out of the blue. The decision taken represents ongoing talks and discussions between Thailand and China

It is important to note the meticulous planning and diplomatic efforts that preceded this landmark decision. The commitment to permanent visa exemption is a significant commitment by both countries.

At this time, the decision reverberates beyond the realms of tourism and economics. It is seen as a commitment to fostering people-to-people connections, cultural understanding, and shared prosperity. By removing barriers to travel, Thailand and China are sending a powerful message of openness, cooperation, and friendship.

Geopolitically, Thailand’s new government is reportedly trying to strengthen its position as a global player. 

Thailand aims now to be a global player

At the same time, China seeks to strengthen its ties in the Southeast Asian region. This decision is part of an ongoing diplomatic dance between the two countries.

Srettha warns of military conflict over rising South China Sea disputes with Beijing including Taiwan

It comes at a time when Thailand is also being forced to confront the potential for hostilities in Asia.

These are linked to Taiwan as well as Chinese aggression and disputes over the South China Sea. This is being driven further by rising tensions between China and Western allies.

Thailand is committed to maintaining friendly ties with Beijing, while simultaneously raising its profile on the international stage. Especially, above the widening divisions in Asia.

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