Tourism Ministry Studies Waiving Regional Visas

Implementing a visa-free policy for Asean members would have little impact on national budget revenues from the tourism sector, the first phase of a Ministry of Tour­ism study found recently.

“We will not lose a profit if there is a visa-free policy,” said Thong Khon, secretary of state at the Min­istry of Tourism. “It will in­crease the number of tourists up to 20 percent extra per year.”

Last month in Bali, Indonesia, Asean members agreed to dramatically simplify their visa procedures and to allow their citizens to travel visa-free within the region by 2005.

The ministry study, conducted as part of the Asean Tourism Agree­ment signed last year, comes as the industry struggles to recover from the regional outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome earlier this year.

About 500,000 tourists arrived in the first eight months of 2003. Ministry officials were hoping to reach 1 million arrivals this year.

The study found that revenue from the visa fee comprises only about 10 percent of total tourism revenue. Thong Khon said that the revenue generated from an increase in tourists would offset lost visa revenues.

The ministries of Tourism and Fi­nance and other related ministries will continue to study the  visa-free policy. The study, Thong Khon said, will first look at implementing the policy in Vietnam, Laos and Thailand—with the hope of expanding it to China, Japan, Korea and India. Visitors from Malaysia already enjoy visa-free access to the country.

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said Friday that waiving the visa fee would not affect

revenue because a large percentage of the money collected is pocketed by corrupt officials.

“Thousands of tourists came by checkpoints on the border, but the money did not become national revenue,” Son Chhay said.

Since the country received about 800,000 tourists in 2002, who were each charged $20 for a visa, the government should have collected about $16 million in visa fees. Budget implementation numbers for 2002 from the Ministry of Finance show that the government collected only about $10 million in revenue from visa fees.

Kong Vibol, secretary of state at the Finance Ministry, said the government would welcome a visa-free policy if the planned studies show it will benefit the country.

“If the study shows that visa-free is good for us, we will do it,” he said. “If it makes us lose revenue, we won’t do it.”

Singapore announced Thursday that it would lift visa restrictions on citizens from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam who plan to stay in the city-state for fewer than 30 days.

“We are hoping more tourists will come to visit Singapore,” Mitch­ell Lee, first secretary at the Singapore Embassy, said Friday. He did not have figures on how many Cambodians visit Singa­pore.

Singapore’s policy does not require Cambodia to reciprocate.

“This was a unilateral action taken by our government,” Lee said.

The president of Royal Phnom Penh Airways, Prince Norodom Chakrapong, said that Cambodia should not act unilaterally to waive visa fees with any country.

“It is not fair if we pay when we go to other countries, but it is free for them if they visit here,” the prince said. He added that good service and low cost is the best way to attract tourists.

Sathol Miyura, managing director of the travel agent APEC Tour (Cambodia), disagreed with Prince Chakrapong.

“We, as a travel agent, have supported dropping visas for the past five years,” he said. “Dropping visas would increase the amount of tourists and create more jobs for people.”

Miyura also emphasized the importance of offering direct flights from Tokyo and other large Asian cities.

“A large amount of Japanese tourists fly directly to Vietnam,” he said.

Vietnam and Japan have an agreement offering visa-free access and direct flights between the two countries.

“That’s why Vietnam attracts more Japanese tourists than us,” Thong Khon said.

Ngy Tayi, an undersecretary of state at the Finance Ministry, said he did not think tourists are deterred by the $20 visa fee.

“I believe tourists are still willing to come here,” he said.

But he said the visa-free policy will move forward.

“Dropping the visa fee will not affect national revenue much,” he said. “But it will help create jobs in the tourism sector, which could help increase visitors.”

(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)


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