Sunday, April 10, 2016

Thai visa ‘nightmare’ propels Lankans to seek other holiday destinations

‘We have to grapple with false documents’ says Embassy

 by Suresh Perera

With Thailand tightening the screws on Sri Lankan visitors, more and more travelers have opted for Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai this holiday season to avoid the frustrating hassle of securing a Thai visa, industry officials said last week.

Gone were those spacious days when it was hassle-free for Sri Lankans to grab a visa and make a beeline to this key tourist destination on Southeast Asia’s Indochina peninsula, they recalled. "That’s now just a day dream".

Sri Lankans have to produce a "sponsorship letter" to apply for a tourist visa and if that’s not possible, they have to submit confirmed vouchers from a hotel in Thailand, a travel agent in Colombo said.

In the backdrop of the rigid process adhered to, if, by some chance, the visa is rejected, the money spent on the booking goes down the drain, he pointed out. "Most hotels in Bangkok demand full payment to confirm reservations and there is no provision for reimbursement".

"It is a nightmare now to obtain visas as the impression created by all these barriers is that Sri Lankans are no longer welcome in Thailand", he noted, referring to the Southeast Asian nation now under military rule.

The Royal Thai Embassy’s First Secretary, Ms. Chotika Attapimon, agreed to meet with The Sunday Island last Tuesday to discuss issues that have arisen over granting visas, but the appointment was subsequently canceled by an official, who informed that she was "busy handling peak season applications".

The official referred the newspaper to the Colombo Mission’s website, where a statement posted online offered a "clarification" on what the Embassy conceded were "complaints received regarding the visa issuance process over the past few months".

The existing problem of issuing visas relates to some travel agencies and individuals submitting false documents, apart from their failure to fill all required details in the application forms, the Embassy announcement asserted.

"We have discovered fabricated air tickets as well as those with illegally altered traveling dates. On cross checking with the carriers, we have found that such air tickets either do not exist in the airline systems or have been canceled before the date of submission of the visa applications", it explained.

A company eager to offer an all-paid vacation to its 60-member staff on the sidelines of a budget meeting in Bangkok had a rude shock when most of the visa applications were turned down.

"They insisted on a sponsor despite an assurance that, as a responsible corporate, we would bear all expenses and ensure everybody returned to Sri Lanka after the visit", the company’s CEO said.

"We regretted selecting Thailand as the venue, but as it was too late to change plans, we had to keep on submitting more documents in a bid to clear the rejected visas, the top executive recalled. "It was a painful experience".

The Embassy provides consular services according to the rules and regulations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand which are general and similar to other foreign missons in Colombo. Applicants are required to fill in application forms as well as attach all relevant and complete documents, it clarified in its statement.

"They demand a bank balance of Rs. 250,000 maintained over a period of six months, which effectively shuts out the average traveler eager to venture out on a short holiday overseas", an industry official complained.

"In our case, they wanted a bank balance of Rs. 100,000 maintained over a six-month period per applicant", the CEO said. "This meant that poor workers down the line have to be left out".

"The day they realize that what a visitor could do either in Europe or the US cannot be achieved in Thailand, there will be hopefully less suffering inflicted on genuine Lankan visitors", the travel agent pointed out. "There are bad eggs in any part of the world, but it is wrong to treat everybody like pickpockets".

While Sri Lankans are being largely shut out through the imposition of rigid rules, there is a free flow of even Thai sex workers to Colombo, he claimed. "On the contrary, it seems to be smooth sailing for Thai nationals visiting Sri Lanka".

To avoid the hassle, more people showed interest in flying to either Singapore or Malaysia for the holidays, though both countries were more costly in terms of accommodation and living expenses, a travel trade official said. "Malaysia is also rigid in its visa procedure, but it’s not as bad as Thailand".

Dubai was also considered an option because a visa at US$ 75 can be obtained sans volumnious documentation and probing questions, he explained.

Sri Lankans can travel visa-free to Singapore and Maldives, while Hong Kong and Indonesia offer the "visa on arrival facility".

The Thai Embassy extended the period of visa issuance to five working days with effect from February 15, 2016 as Consul officers have to check all suspicious air tickets among 300 applications per day, according to its online statement.

The failure to comply with the rules and regulations has caused delays to travel agencies and individuals with genuine and complete documents, it said.

The demand for visas during the peak season has zoomed to 500-600 per day, the mission outlined, while warning that the submission of fake document is a crime against the Embassy, which is a governmental office.

"The Embassy will immediately stop issuing visas to travel agencies or individuals who submit false documents".

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