Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tourists could see SE Asia on single visa

Travellers could soon be able surf in Bali, shop in Singapore and eat spicy street food in Thailand before crossing into Cambodia and cruising the Mekong in Vietnam -- all on a single tourist visa.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) is working on a plan that would open the region to foreign tourists in the same way Europe's unified visa system has streamlined travel.

"You would just have to apply for one visa and you could then visit all the countries using that visa," said Eddy Krisneidi, an official at the Jakarta-based Asean Secretariat, which recently released its Tourism Strategic Plan for the next five years.

With attractions ranging from jungle-covered temples at Angkor Wat in Cambodia to five-star beach resorts in Bali, Southeast Asia is a region that tempts travellers from all walks of life.

Asean countries recorded more than 65 million foreign visitor arrivals in 2009. Malaysia led the field, followed by Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Brunei.

Analysts say visitor numbers could be boosted by slashing the time-consuming and confusing visa requirements for each of Asean's 10 countries, which range from vibrant developing democracies to isolated, military-dominated Burma.

While some allow foreigners to simply purchase visas on arrival, others require wads of paperwork, photos and up to a week to issue the required stamp.

"One of the major concerns of the industry, as well as visitors, is the difficulty of obtaining visas, a series of widely differing regulations and information needs for visas," Asean's strategic plan states.

It is a view shared by Stuart McDonald, who runs an online travel forum for Southeast Asia.

"One of the most common questions that we see on travelfish.org is people asking visa questions: What kind of visa can I get? How long is it valid for? What does it cost?," said the Australian who travels extensively in Asia.

"The rules change all the time and it introduces a level of uncertainty and confusion that the industry can do without."

The concept of a single visa has wide support among tourism bodies across Southeast Asia.

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