A single insurance fix for tourists?

CHIANG RAI, 2 August 2018: When you talk about mandatory travel insurance and GPS tracking devices for tourists visiting Thailand alarm bells ring in the offices of inbound travel companies across the country.

They are already burdened with various insurance schemes and they certainly don’t appreciate experts suggesting they should have more.

As for GPS tracking, one travel agent called me to say it was kind of irrelevant.

“If tourists want to wear them fine, but it will always be voluntary and we might ask who is going to pay for the tracking bracelets and who will monitor the tracking. It is not entirely automated.”

GPS tracking is a cosmetic touch, a PR gimmick, but not insurance. That could heap more expense on travel firms and create duplication when they least need it.

The two subjects gained an airing at a recent Thai Chic Travel Fair seminar attended by Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports.

Media reports kind of considered it done and dusted; as if the insurance booths were already in airports and land border checkpoint ready for a call to business.

They are not of course and the reason is simple. There is nothing simple about making insurance mandatory for every tourist visiting Thailand.

It all makes for excellent seminar discussion. Here’s a new idea from a panel of experts who may have overlooked how many times in the past these two subjects have surfaced and were duly presented to ministers who are now retired or out of favour.

So let’s separate the wood from the trees.  Travel companies already buy mandatory insurance to comply with Ministry of Tourism and Sports licencing requirements.

In addition, the transport they use is also insured fully. All told travel companies have multiple insurance cover that in case of a fatality pays out around THB 2 million. This meets with ministry requirements and also additional requirements set out with their foreign partner companies that demand their clients be covered by the local travel firm.

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports should ensure that all tour companies are compliant with insurance requirements. This should include Chinese tour operators, who apparently feel they are a law unto themselves, or relish the art of shortcuts and omission.

By ensuring all registered travel companies are compliant around 8 million tourists who travel on tour company itineraries would be covered.

That leaves independent leisure travellers. Thailand claims it welcomed 35 million visitors in 2017 but that includes overland border trips, possibly around 5 million.

Most European travellers take out insurance before they leave home.  Perhaps younger travellers and backpackers omit to buy insurance. Business travellers are seriously over insured.

Possibly, there is a potential market of 10 million visitors who arrive in Thailand without insurance cover.

Those who believe you cannot have enough insurance cover would recommend airports and land checkpoints install insurance booths where policies could be sold to people who are staying for more than 24 hours.

But immigration officials would need to ask for proof of return travel and insurance cover when checking passports. This would in turn lengthen immigration queues and in an era when passport checks are being automated it presents a serious obstacle for onsite insurance booths to operate profitably.

Most of the concerns at the seminar were prompted by the recent boat disaster in Phuket.

But again the same solution that applies to travel companies could work for boat owners and operators.

They would have to insure their boats with the appropriate marine authority and then if they were conducting tour transfers they would need to apply for a second licence with the Ministry of Tourism and Sports and that would require additional insurance cover.  So like land tour operators they would end up with two polices one covering their equipment and the other covering their tourists.

There is no single solution, a fix it for all occasions and all tourists. We have to whittle down the risks sector-by-sector.

In the meantime, Thailand’s tourism promotions, worldwide, should carry the caveat that travellers should take out insurance before they leave home. Make the recommendation on every TV spot and advertisement globally.  It would add a stark reality check to the otherwise slick advertising message but it could be a lifesaver.