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16 Aug, 2004

Thailand, India Links Grow but Tourism Flows Remain Skewed

The growing economic contacts between Thailand and India are opening up opportunities to rectify at least two areas of critical imbalance in bilateral visitor flows.

Even as the Indian tourist office is concerned about the large gap between Indian visitors to Thailand as against vice versa, the Tourism Authority of Thailand sees more opportunity for raising Indian arrivals to Thailand to the same level as that of China.

In 2003, Indian visitors to Thailand totalled 230,316 while the Indian embassy in Bangkok issued about 32,000 visas, a rough indicator of the number of Thais and Thailand residents visiting India. Mr. R.K.Bhati, director of the Indian Tourist office in Singapore, is projecting at least 37,000 to 40,000 visas this year.

Last week, a large contingent of Indian businessmen visited Bangkok for a trade exhibition to attract travellers and investors from Thailand. In addition to the Indian Tourist Office, only three other travel companies were present.

A Confederation of Indian Industry official said participation had been hit by the timing of the show; Indian exhibitors instead had opted to attend other larger trade events like the International Travel Show and the PATA Travel Mart, both to be held in Bangkok next week and next month respectively.

However, the trade show was attended by hundreds of women of all nationalities attracted by the huge variety of traditional Indian apparel, handicrafts, jewellery, home furnishings and bed linen.

A number of tour operators sending Thai visitors to India were invited to a special function last week for a product update, especially the Buddhist circuit for which India sees a captive market from Thailand and across East Asia.

Ms Nopamas Punyahotra, managing director of POP Travel, said that although Buddhist pilgrims don’t mind the spartan facilities, they usually avoid the summer months because of the oppressive heat.

In addition to the Thai Indian Free Trade Agreement, signed in October 2003, and now awaiting implementation, recent months have seen a number of activities to lay the policy and infrastructure foundations for more travel between India and Thailand.

The most recent was the BIMST-EC summit in Bangkok last month where Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “To further explore the vast potential that exists for increasing tourism within our region, India proposes to host a Round Table and Workshop of Tourism Ministers of BIMST-EC countries, with the participation of tour operators, hotel representatives and others associated and with the tourism industry with the objective of at least doubling tourism within BIMST-EC region in the next five years.”

He also mentioned the India-Myanmar-Thailand highway to be funded by India and Thailand which will complete a major missing link of the vast Asian Highway network and allow tour operators to create new packages incorporating Northeast India, Bhutan, Myanmar and Thailand.

Aviation bottlenecks are also being cleared up.

Indian aviation authorities have allowed ASEAN carriers to freely operate in six metro cities and 18 other Indian tourist destinations. However, THAI and some of the other ASEAN airlines have been seeking fifth freedom rights from India, which would allow them to pick up passengers in any Indian city and fly them to a third country, possibly in the Middle East or Europe.

India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation is not willing to grant them such rights as it would affect its government-owned carriers, Air India and Indian Airlines, whose most lucrative routes today are those to the Middle East.

Two of India’s private airlines, Jet Airways and Air Sahara are preparing to launch services to Bangkok. A team from Jet Airways was in Bangkok earlier this month and mentioned the possibility of a November start up.

Another area that could open up is the Andaman and Nicobar Islands which, as India’s deputy chief of mission T.P.Seetharam pointed out last week, is closer in terms of flying time to Phuket than to any Indian city.

The BIMST-EC summit communiqué also talked of removing visa bottlenecks via long-term, multiple-entry visas and establishment of a business travel card patterned along the lines of the APEC card.

While Thailand gives visas on arrival to Indian citizens, Thais need to apply beforehand.

The two countries also do not have tourism offices in each other’s countries. The Indians are soon planning to reopen theirs in Bangkok, closed several years ago due to budgetary constraints.

In turn, Thailand has been seeking to open an office in Delhi for nearly two years but been unsuccessful for a number of bureaucratic and red-tape reasons.

If that office opens, the TAT is hopeful that the number of Indian visitors to Thailand will soon equal the 763,000 visitors from China in 2002, making a major contribution to attaining the Thaksin administration’s target of 20 million visitor arrivals by 2008.

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