CHIANG RAI, 26 September 2018: It’s not fake news, but it’s the next best thing that snares gullible media who forgot to think and evaluate or have fallen into the mindless trap of copy and paste.
The Bangkok Post ran the first confused and speculative report on what appeared to be a serious proposal to introduce a single visa for what northern university academics call “the Five Chiang” cities.
The five cities are Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Thailand, Keng Tung, formerly Chiang Tung in Shan state Myanmar, Jing Hong (Chiang Rung) in Yunnan province China and Luang Prabang in Laos (Chiang Thong).
The report claimed a serious proposal was in the pipeline for a single-visa that would allow international travellers to visit all five cities. The single visa would be available at a one-stop shop in Chiang Rai.
Then within hours every travel trade media outlet in the region swiftly copied and pasted the so-called news without any evaluation or scrutiny.
I attended the “Five Chiang Cities” seminar last January and yes the president of the Northern Tourism Federation, Kitti Tissakul, did make a passionate plea that an economic zone shared by Chiang Rai and its neighbours Laos, Myanmar and China should be established. He reckoned Chiang Rai could be home to a one-stop visa shop where visitors would apply for a visa to travel beyond Chiang Rai to the three “Chiang” cities in China Laos and Myanmar. Travellers would fly to Chiang Mai, or possibly Chiang Rai, to start the trip to the ‘Five Chiang Cities’, while obtaining the crucial single visa during their stop in the border province of Chiang Rai.
He was reiterating a topic raised two decades earlier and no doubt there will be someone prepared to raise the subject at another seminar 20 year hence.
But despite the passion and sincere sentiment to improve tourism between northern Thailand and its neighbours talking about a single visa valid for four countries is akin to flying a lead balloon.
However, the “Five Chiangs” is gaining a little traction not for a single visa or a trade zone, but rather for the potential value a heritage tourism route promises. It happens to be a novel concept that promotes a common heritage shared by five cities that were once pillars of the Lanna Kingdom. But that is where it ends.
The glaring snag that the media should have pointed out is China’s unwillingness to ease visas for travel to and from its neighbours. That kills off the single visa for four countries and that is unlikely to change even if there are high-speed trains criss-crossing the region from China.
There are constant efforts to link the five cities and one of the early pioneers was Bangkok Airways when it mulled a single fare for a trip linking the heritage towns in the Mekong Region. It failed at the starting block.
Other proposals followed mainly to ease visas and not to be forgotten there was the Cambodia-Thailand single visa project that was billed a pilot project that would ultimately usher in the ASEAN single visa. It still remains a distant dream.
A single visa for travel through the four countries fails because for most travellers it is irrelevant. The majority of visitors to Thailand and even Laos can travel visa-free. If they wish to travel to Myanmar they can obtain an eVisa within hours for just USD50.
Travel to Jing Hong in Yunnan province in China requires a visa and if you intend to pop over the border to Laos then resume your travels in China you would need yer another visa.
Single visas involving multiple partner countries are difficult enough to introduce even when all the countries are on the same page. How the visa fee is shared is one obstacle and coming up with a list of eligible nationalities that suits all partners is another.
However, China is not on the same page as Myanmar, Laos or Thailand. The trio are keen to attract international tourists either through visa-free travel or eVisas. However, China clearly is not in hurry to welcome more tourists.
Given the differences in approach to visa management common sense says that short of China revisiting its immigration policy a single visa, whatever the formula or partner countries, is doomed to failure from the word go.