Two tales of Thailand and its neighbors

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BANGKOK, Thailand (eTN) – As a major gateway, Thailand looks to improve its access to its neighbours. We look at two recent examples of policy favoring the country as a gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia.

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BANGKOK, Thailand (eTN) – As a major gateway, Thailand looks to improve its access to its neighbours. We look at two recent examples of policy favoring the country as a gateway to the rest of Southeast Asia.

The opening of a new official border checkpoint between Kelantan and Southern Thailand on December 21 is unlikely to make both regions cooperating more in terms of tourism, as violence continues to plague Thailand’s three Muslim-dominated Southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

Despite unabated violence in Southern Thailand and now massive flooding in the region, Malaysia and Thailand hope to give a strong signal of their commitment to enhance their cooperation with the opening of a new bridge between the districts of Jeli (Kelantan, Malaysia) and Waeng (Narathiwat province) this coming Thursday. The new bridge will then become the third official international checkpoint between both countries and complement the existing border checkpoints in Rantau Panjang/Sungei Kolok as well as in Pengkalan Kubor/Tak Bai.

Attempts were made a decade ago to develop some common heritage and cultural products, especially by favoring religious tourism. Sultanate of Pattani is home to one of the most famous Buddhist Chinese temple, a highly veneered site among Singaporean and Malaysian Chinese. But above all, Pattani occupies a special place in Malay’s psyche. It used to be the spiritual center of Malay culture with universities and religious schools. It is also there that the Koran was translated into Malay language for the first time. The once-mighty sultanate has also the oldest mosque in the region, the Kru Se Mosque.

But little contacts exist today in tourism. “It is almost impossible to encourage tourism in Southern Thailand because of the daily violence,” explained outgoing Tourism Minister Suvit Yodmani. “We can only try to promote local tourism with some sport events between the Youth living in the three provinces.”

On the Kelantan side, Haji Mohd Arif, manager of the state’s Information Center, confesses that he had no contact for a long time. Looking at the number of Thai and Malaysian crossing each other borders, it is true that tourist flows look to only going one way: in 2006, Kelantan recorded 800,000 arrivals from Thai citizens. And in 2007, the number is up by 100 percent with total arrivals expected to reach 1.6 million. However, foreign tourism to Southern Thailand is collapsing. A bomb explosion two years ago in the border town of Sungei Kolok, a very popular “entertainment” destination, sent jitters among Malaysian travelers, which represent 90 percent of all arrivals. In 2006, total arrivals to Sungei Kolok declined by 20.4 percent to 236,000 with Malaysians representing alone 203,000 visitors.

Kelantan has launched a comprehensive plan for tourism development including the set-up of integrated tourism resorts. A first small-scale resort exists already in Pantai Sri Tujoh, just three kilometers away from the border to Thailand in Pengkalan Kubor. A vast project foresees the development in Tumpat, where Kelantan’s largest Thai community lives.

“We are looking now for partners but this project is the most ambitious to date as it will integrate deluxe hotels, a marina, a shopping centre and a cultural village,” said Haji Mohd Arif. In 2008, Kelantan will launch its “visit year” campaign, hoping to bring more awareness to the destination, which remains rather a transit point for many travelers. “Our objective is to increase the total length of stay to three nights from 1.7 today. We will increase our promotion at international shows such as ITB and WTM and will receive a budget of US$ 550,000, up by 70 percent over 2007. We target 1.2 real tourists by next year with an emphasis on travellers from the UK, Germany and the Middle East,” added Arif.

Kelantan’s objective is for it to be more perceived as an authentic destination where visitors will be able to get a glimpse of Malay life through handicraft, culture and cuisine.

Meanwhile, it took two years of negotiations since the announcement to implement a common visa valid for both Thailand and Cambodia; there was not a lot to be heard about progress between both countries. Late last week, Thailand’s foreign affairs minister finally went to Phnom Penh to sign with its Cambodian counterpart the agreement for the implementation of the common visa. Cambodia/Thailand common visa will then be available to travelers from the first quarter of 2008 with modalities on the price set up and about the validity of the visa.

Such an initiative will, however, only be of limited interest for all countries already benefiting of the free visa-on-arrival facility to Thailand. The price for a double Cambodia/Thailand visa will undoubtly be higher than a single visa to Cambodia, currently available for US$20. Why would then travelers pay more? The new visa would only be of any benefit for travelers who are still requested to get a Thai visa or for long-stay travelers in Thailand, as the visa on arrival is valid only for a month. Long-stay travelers can for the time being receive a single visa valid for three months which expires once tourists leave the kingdom. The new visa could then provide the possibility to stay longer and then re-enter Thailand without asking for a new single visa. Details should be provided by next month, once the new-elected Thai government will be in place.

The visa is an initiative within the Mekong Sub-region. If the formula proves successful, the common visa could then be expanded step by step to Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Then, such a multi-country visa would gain a broad interest from foreign travellers.

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