CHIANG MAI, 16 June 2017: Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports, Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, promised overland travel regulations that currently impede the flow of self-drive holidays from China will be resolved soon.
She was fielding a question during a panel discussion on Moving Towards a Shared Prosperity attended by representatives from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand, on the sidelines of TTM 2017, Thursday.
The five-country tourism bloc called CLMVT is expected to welcome close to 13 million tourists from China this year, but the flow of self-drive tours through Laos to Thailand has dried up mainly due to strict rules enforced by Thailand’s Land Transport Department.
The CLMVT panel identified four areas where there was potential to share and link travel experiences. They were: culture; food; city life and overland travel.
However, there remains serious challenges that need to be resolved to make overland travel happen.
Thailand introduced obstacles and strict conditions on self-drive holidays from China in 2016, mainly in response to local media reports that highlighted a spate of road accidents involving Chinese drivers. There was also criticism that Chinese were driving campervans into Thailand with very little benefit for Thailand’s tourism industry. Thailand lacks caravan parks so the Chinese campers had to improvise on shower and toilet requirements whenever they parked their campervans.
The Minister admitted that strict rules were introduced last year mainly to tackle safety issues, but it resulted in some border checkpoints losing all of their self-drive holiday tours.
Chiang Rai was particularly hard hit with officials telling TTR Weekly that only a handful of cars crossed the bridge checkpoint over the Mekong River in 2016. The steady flow of Chinese travellers driving their luxury cars to Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai came to an abrupt halt. Since the crackdown Chinese registered cars are now a rare sight at the bridge checkpoint between Huay Xai in Laos and Chiang Khong in Chiang Rai province.
Draconian rules created by Thailand’s Land Transport Department forbade Chinese car owners from going beyond the province adjacent to the border. They were also reportedly told to take a road safety exam at the checkpoint before crossing and they were obliged to take out fresh insurance policies in Thailand.
But the Minister of Tourism said she was confident that a way forward would be navigated with the Land Transport Department to ease regulations.
She conceded that perhaps rules had gone too far and needed a revision.
“We don’t want to block them, just ensure safety is in place… new regulations will be created that ease the problem. We are having excellent collaboration with the Land Transport Department through a working group to revise the rules and provide regulations that will encourage overland travel.”
She attended a recent meeting in Chiang Rai to discuss the problem and a follow-up meeting in Bangkok was scheduled to improve service and safety for Chinese travellers.
However, she did not give the audience at the CLMVT panel event an idea of the timeframe.
The panel presented various optimistic views on ways to link tourism products between the five countries. However, presentations, last week, on connectivity at the Mekong Tourism Forum indicated there was still a long way to go to make overland self-drive travel a reality. Vietnam has a set of regulation that make it very expensive and inconvenient to organise a self-drive holiday. Cars must be left-hand drive, the group must hire a police patrol to lead even a single car. Laos is the most liberal and self-drive holidays between Thailand and Laos are a reality particularly on the route between Vientiane the capital and the World Heritage town of Luang Prabang.
Unfortunately, travel advisories warn travellers that highway 13 is not safe for visitors. Travellers are advised to fly between the two destinations.