ASEAN to focus on virus outbreak; set aside visa talks ‘for now’

The ASEAN headquarters located in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are not yet keen on bringing to the table any talks about visa exemptions and visa waivers.

Representatives of the 10-member organization on Wednesday, April 27, approved in principle the Joint Statement of ASEAN Tourism Ministers on Strengthening Cooperation to Revitalize Tourism.

Thailand’s Tourism and Sports Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn said that the member countries have agreed to temporarily set the issue aside to focus on keeping the coronavirus outbreak situation at bay.

“The visa facilitation policy will be reconsidered once ASEAN can contain the virus spread and travel restrictions in each country are lifted, allowing tourism activities to resume,”Ratchakitprakarn said.

Last year, Thailand waived fees on visa-on-arrival for 18 countries from periods from October 31, 2019, to April 30, 2020 in a bid to boost the tourism industry. The spike in coronavirus cases, however, prompted the government to reconsider its decision. The VOA is currently under indefinite suspension.

In addition, Thailand canceled visa exemptions for travelers from South Korea, Hong Kong, and Italy amid the countries’ high number of coronavirus cases.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Thailand also extended the ban on landing flights until May 31, while other Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam extended their suspension of visa exemptions for all foreigners, including ASEAN citizens, who used to enjoy such benefits.

Ratchakitprakarn underscored that if the vaccine is not developed this year, all ASEAN members have agreed to implement shared standards that highlight social distancing practices as well as safety and hygiene in the tourism sector.

Among the members, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore are the countries that rely heavily on the tourism industry and are expected to suffer the most, followed by Indonesia and the Philippines.

According to the minister, each country in the ASEAN region shares a hopeful view that domestic tourism will restart in July, with the driver expected to be Southeast Asian tourists, before expanding overall to the whole of Asia.

“If the situation in Asia, including China, Japan, and South Korea, can improve by the last quarter, intra-Asia tourism will help mitigate the impact of the pandemic in the region,” he said.