As a measure under Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy（新南向政策）, Taiwan has granted Thai citizens visa waivers. This has helped to boost tourism to Taiwan and lessened the local economy’s reliance on Chinese tourists. Since President Tsai Ing-wen（蔡英文）simplified tourist visa applications and granted visa waiver programs for several select countries, the number of visitors from these “Southbound” countries reached a new high of 2.59 million in 2018—an increase of 45 percent over 2016—and accounting for nearly a quarter of all foreign visitors to Taiwan. Furthermore, in the first nine months of 2018, spending by the “Southbound” visitors also reached USD $2.708 billion, becoming the second largest source for Taiwan’s tourism economy.
Yet, the Thailand Trade and Economic Office in Taipei (TTEO) announced in November 2019 that Taiwanese passport holders are required to apply for a visa online and to schedule an appointment to submit their passports in person at the office. The visa applicants would also need to provide bank details as proof that they can cover their travel expenses. Such increase in complexity of applying for a Thai visa has caused public concerns and inconvenience. This new TTEO measure followed another TTEO attempt to raise administrative fees for Thai visas in August 2018, arousing public dissatisfaction about unreciprocal treatment towards Taiwanese citizens. Under pressure from widespread opposition by the Taiwanese public, the TTEO conceded and withdrew the decision, clarifying that Taiwanese citizens could still utilize the existing methods at the same price to apply for tourist visas at the consular office, while visa-processing centers would serve as alternative channels for those who do not wish to stand in line at the consular office.
Thailand’s Decision Making on Visa Reciprocity
In the past few years, Thailand has tried to provide near-reciprocal visa treatments toward Taiwanese citizens. At the end of 2016, though standing in line at the consular office is still required to submit a visa application, Thailand granted a visa fee waiver program （免簽證費優惠）to 21 countries and territories including Taiwan, which lasted 9 months. Moreover, Thai government also granted another visa-on-arrival fee waiver program（免落地簽證費優惠）to the same beneficiary group, from November 15, 2018 to October 31,2019. Taiwanese citizens were able to save 2,000 Baht (USD $65) and allowed to stay 15 days if they choose to apply for a tourist visa upon their arrival to Thailand. The program has been further extended to April 30, 2020.
Understandably, Thailand weighs potential trade-offs when deciding whether to give Taiwan reciprocal treatment. In June 2018, Taiwan’s Minister without Portfolio, Chang Ching-sen（張景森）, told Thailand’s Representative in Taipei, Thongchai Chasawath, that if Thailand does not provide a visa waiver for Taiwan, Thailand could definitely gain more visa revenue, but tourist income in Thailand would drop accordingly. Tongchai did not provide direct response on why Thailand had not yet granted reciprocal treatment to Taiwan, and only said that they considered before, but “Thailand has its tough nut to crack.” （家家有本難念的經）What would make Thailand risk losing its tourist income only to maintain the status quo?
One plausible and likely explanation is that Thailand faces pressure from China to limit its ties with Taiwan. Such pressure can be seen and understood from Thailand’s previous visa policy decisions. Whether it is the visa fee waiver program in 2016-2017 or the visa-on-arrival fee waiver program in 2018-2020, Taiwan is not the primary target country under Thailand’s visa policies. Both policies were all targeted to “21 countries and territories,” in which Taiwan and China were both classified into the same country list. And if Thailand provides Taiwan a visa waiver program, then Thailand may also be pressured to grant the same privilege to China. On top of that, China provides the largest source of tourists for Thailand. In 2018, 10.66 million Chinese tourists visited Thailand, while Taiwanese tourists were only estimated at 0.6 million visitors. As a result, If Thailand currently has to face the pressure from China and gains more tourist revenue through more visitors from China, then there is no incentive for Thailand to grant a visa free policy to Taiwan.
Other Areas in Southeast Asia, Beyond Thailand
Similar policies exist in the other two Southeast Asian countries that also receive visa-free treatment from Taiwan. Brunei Darussalam and the Philippines maintain similar visa policies for Taiwanese citizens, with the former requiring a BN$20 (USD $18) visa-on-arrival fee and the latter requiring online e-visa application beforehand with a NT$ 1,100 (USD $35.45) fee.
In comparison, while the Philippines granted China a 14-day visa waiver program, Taiwanese citizens still need to complete the online e-visa application prior to obtaining a 30-day entry permit due to the Philippines’ implementation of its “One-China Policy.” Under the special relations between Taiwan and the Philippines, the Manila Economic and Cultural Office is not considered to be an official diplomatic institution. Therefore, its operation relies on visa application fees, lessening the possibility for Manila authorities to introduce a visa-free policy for Taiwan.
Brunei is the only country in the world that grants China and Taiwan the exact same visa policy treatment — visa-on-arrival with a 14-day entry permit.
These examples all show that when it comes to implementing visa policies, Southeast Asian countries have to take the China factor into consideration regardless of Taiwan’s visa waiver program. All in all, among these three Southeast Asian countries that were included in Taiwan’s visa waiver program on a trial basis, only Thailand provided a near reciprocal treatment to Taiwan.
Lessons and a Way Forward for Taiwan
Despite the unreciprocal treatment, continuation of the visa waiver program for Southeast Asian countries is indeed a prudent and sustainable way to maintain Taiwan’s soft power – in both the economic and cultural sense – to stand firm on the international stage. According to Taiwan Tourism Bureau, the number of Thai tourists to Taiwan reached 124,409 in 2015, and since the implementation of visa waiver program for Thai citizens, that number has increased to 195,640 in 2016 and skyrocketed to 292,534 in 2017. Chang Ching-Sen also estimated that through multiplying each tourist by NT$50,000, a net increase of more than 170,000 tourists could bring over NT$10 billion revenue in the future, proving that the visa waiver program is an effective policy.
Apart from economic independence, more Southeast Asian tourists visiting Taiwan also means that they are increasingly exposed to Taiwan’s culture. As the core means of projecting its soft power, Taiwanese culture has the potential to enhance the international visibility of Taiwan, since more individuals from Southeast Asian countries will be able to distinguish Taiwan from the PRC. Broadening Taiwan’s tourism industry by embracing and relying on more Southeast Asian tourists can help equip Taiwan with resilience toward the challenges ahead and put its eggs into different baskets. Mainland China recently announced its intention to stop issuing individual travel permits to Taiwan in late July, and this has triggered public concern regarding possible implications for the island’s economy. Whether Southeast Asian tourists to Taiwan maintain the increasing trend and thus fill the space created by the China travel ban accordingly is still worth observing. What is certain is that the China travel ban is aimed at impacting the result of the coming presidential election on the island, bringing a new challenge for Tsai’s administration and its New Southbound Policy.
The main point: Taiwan has provided visa waivers for Thailand and many other Southeast Asian countries with the goal of improving people flows and supporting Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy. These Southeast Asian countries have demonstrated some reciprocity toward Taiwan although the China factor likely still affects these governments’ consideration.