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16 Jun, 2003

Cambodian Minister To Resist Visa-On-Arrival Cutback

Cambodian tourism minister Veng Sereyvuth said last week he would resist any attempts by Cambodian security authorities to alter the country’s visa-on-arrival policy as a result of the recent arrests of alleged “terrorists” in his country.

“That will not be good,” he said in an interview last week. “We need tourists. We are a poor country. How else are we going to help improve the living standards of our people.”

Cambodia’s visa-on-arrival policy has been a major contributor to making it the region’s fastest growing tourism destination. Anyone can get a visa at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap airports upon filling out a form, providing a photograph and US$10 fee.

The visa-free and visa-on-arrival policy of nearly all the Greater Mekong Subregion and ASEAN countries has played a major role in the tourism boom of the past years. In 2002, Cambodia had the highest growth in visitor arrivals, up 30 % to 786,524 (by air at Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, its two main international gateways).

This growth has already taken a dive as a result of the war in Iraq and the SARS crisis, converting from a 16 % growth in February to a 22 % decline in March. Mr Veng indicated that he was not about to let visa-liberalisation become a victim of the security concerns.

He said he would rather that intelligence and security authorities keep track of any suspects and arrest them if there is cause, rather than put up blanket restrictions that would not guarantee a significantly higher level of security and yet affect the entire industry.

He said he would also like to see more efforts being made to address the issue of terrorism at its root cause rather than just through crackdowns. “We need to look at the issues that breed terrorism. There’s no point in trying to control terrorism in one place if it just breeds somewhere else.”

This theme was also picked up by former Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Seree Wangpaichitr in a speech at the APEC Tourism Forum last week.

He said that as a result of global conflict and terrorism, “Many countries have rolled back or stalled their visa liberalisation policies, and there is little chance of this being reversed until the threat of global terrorism abates.

“Instead, we are being asked to boost security by buying even more expensive security equipment which many of our countries can ill afford. Isn’t it better, cheaper and indeed wiser, to try and reduce the tensions and injustices that feed terrorism rather than continually having to spend more money on security equipment, money that could be better spent on schools and hospitals?”

At their summit last November in Cambodia, ASEAN leaders signed a regional tourism agreement in which they committed in principle to making all of ASEAN a visa-free zone by 2005. This was part of the policy of promoting ASEAN integration and the free flow of people and goods in line with the ASEAN Free Trade Area.

Mr Veng played a major role in pushing the ASEAN Tourism Agreement through.

Burmese, Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians still need visas to go to most of the other ASEAN countries, unless they have a bilateral visa-waiver agreement as in the case of Thailand and Vietnam.

The so-called war on terror has put this ASEAN visa-free goal in jeopardy.

After 9/11, Thailand drastically reduced the number of countries to whose citizens it granted visa-free or visa-on-arrival status, although it retained the privilege for its main generating markets.

After the Bali bombing, Indonesia came up with a plan to also slash back its list of visa-free countries but backed down after an outcry from the country’s long-suffering travel industry.

Laos, emerging as a major tourism competitor to Cambodia, now gives entry visas at 11 international checkpoints including many of the land-bridges and highways linking it with Thailand.

A report by the Laotian delegation to an ASEAN tourism meeting in Kuala Lumpur last month said these included Pakse, Luang Prabang and international airports, six overland checkpoints with Thailand and one each with Vietnam and China.

Of the 735,660 visitors to Laos in 2002, a total of 417,320 came over the Friendship bridge. Arrivals at other checkpoints are also rising, with 45,489 arrivals at the Housay checkpoint, 75,461 at Savannakhet and 39,720 at Champassak.

Laos is to host its first ASEAN Tourism Forum, the region’s signature travel trade show, in January 2004. So far, it has not indicated any change in visa policy inspite of security-related incidents there.

Burma has not relaxed its universal visa-requirement policies. However, it now allows international tourists with visas to enter the country through the five border checkpoints each with Yunnan and Thailand and leave by air from Mandalay or Yangon.

It grants visas on arrival only to packaged visitors by cruise-line and charter flights. Individual travelers from countries with no Burmese diplomatic missions can apply for a visa on arrival through licensed agencies in Burma or direct with the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism.

Visa-liberalisation is also one of the goals of the APEC charter to facilitate intra-regional travel. However, APEC countries like the United States have drastically tightened up on visa and entry formalities to the extent where citizens of Muslim-majority countries are being finger-printed and photographed upon arrival.

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