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Grim faces in the land of smiles

Thailand’s crackdown on ‘visa runners’ could hurt the country’s business competitiveness and open up opportunities for neighbours Cambodia

The list is practically endless: English teachers, humanitarian volunteers, dive and yoga instructors, writers, photographers, artists, internet entrepreneurs and the mobile self-employed. Then there are the monied persons of leisure and those who fell in love with a Thai.

These are some of the categories of foreigner affected by a crackdown on long-term visitors to Thailand, effective from August 12, which will bar re-entry to those with consecutive entry stamps or multiple tourist visas. Cambodia, by comparison, makes it much easier to get a business or other long-term visas.

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Thailand has long been a popular destination for gap-year teachers and those hoping to “find” themselves, a process that often requires months of slow travel, new experiences and introspection. The country’s high quality of life and low cost of living have also made it attractive for Western and East Asian self-employed entrepreneurs who work out of a laptop.

But Thailand is growing less hospitable towards its long-term guests. Those getting stamps at land borders and exiting the country every 15 days, or flying in and out every 30 days, or arriving on tourist visas they renew every two or three months, are being squeezed out.

As with the crackdown on unregistered migrant labourers from neighbouring countries, the ramifications will be felt across the economy, as such workers serve an undervalued role.

Teachers bring Thai students and workers up to proficiency in English – the lingua franca of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community (AEC), which will launch next year. Dive instructors and those involved in leisure and service-related jobs fill an important role in helping tourists have a good time and spend money. And tourism accounts for nearly 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

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Such workers are little threat to Thai jobs, are no drain on the economy, and spend their disposable incomes in the country. As Thai tourism reels from years of political upheaval, these measures will further hurt the industry.

Some regulation is essential, but strong, sustainable economies are dynamic and show flexibility in terms of migration to meet labour shortages. They also take advantage of those who wish to add skills needed in the local workforce in the short term, making the registration process easier for those sectors. The military regime claims it is better to document all workers for their own safety and to be able to regulate the respective industries, and collect the tax. The implication is also that the country should be protected from drifters, “sexpats” and other undesirables.

But the conditions for receiving a work permit are prohibitive. Only a few types of jobs qualify, and for small companies or schools it isn’t cost-effective to pay the high fees and process the reams of paperwork necessary to register teachers or short-term workers likely to leave at the end of their holiday or gap year. The self-employed cannot get work permits unless they employ at least four Thais.

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Thailand also lacks cultural visas, which would allow young people or researchers to travel slowly, learn Buddhism or Thai, write a book on local culture or take up painting or other hobbies. Cutting off such a supply of cultural diffusion and greater appreciation of Thailand may also prove detrimental in the long term, since international relations owe as much to mutual understanding and respect among populations as they do to economic pragmatism.

As increasing numbers of Thais, Malaysians, Singaporeans and others from the region embark on working holiday programmes abroad, it might be time for ASEAN to consider a regional equivalent. Appealing to travelling youth is not a bad way to facilitate later investment, opportunity and closer business relations.

The AEC will boost regional integration and competitiveness and skilled labour will be free to move across ASEAN borders. If Thailand is wary of its unregulated English teachers, how will it prepare for the sudden influx of competition in the tourism, dentistry and health care, engineering and architecture sectors, among others? A policy to tighten the borders should be coupled with a clear plan to prepare the country for a regional free market.

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The danger is that with the Thai junta focused on internal problems – stifling dissent and purging officials affiliated with the wrong parties – it will begin to neglect its international and ASEAN commitments.

In the meantime, Cambodia’s more liberal approach towards long-stay foreigners may make it a more attractive country for tourists, foreign investment and entrepreneurial diffusion.

PHOTOGRAPHS SUPPLIED BY WIKI COMMONS

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