Cambodia needs to imitate Thailand and introduce visa-exempt tourism

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The prospect of legal casinos in Thailand could prompt Cambodia to abandon its tourist visa fees. (NNT)

Cambodia needs to imitate Thailand and introduce visa-exempt tourism

Thailand is riding high on its new visa-exempt policy which allows most international tourists to enter the country without prior approval or payment of a fee. China, India, Russia, the UK, EU, US, Australia, Asean partners and a bunch of other countries all currently have the privilege for a 30 days free tourist entry (90 in the case of Russia and South Korea). With overall numbers now almost at pre-covid levels, over 85 percent of actual arrivals at Thailand’s airports are covered by the visa-free policy.

Meanwhile, Cambodia still imposes a US$30 entry tax on almost all international tourist arrivals, the exceptions being neighboring states. This means that even Cambodia’s biggest short-haul market – the Chinese – all have to pay the tax for a maximum of 30 days stay. The Cambodian premier Hun Manet frequently boasts that once the newly-opened Siem Reap Angkor International Airport and the under-construction Phnom Penh Takhmao International Airport are fully operational in 2025, Chinese arrivals will swell further.

The fly in the ointment could be the strong possibility that Thailand could have legal casinos in operation within two years. The opposition to that notion is now much weaker than, say, 10 years ago. But Daniel Li, a gaming expert and senior consultant to the Cambodian regulator Naga, says the Phnom Penh government needs to introduce a visa-exempt policy now to anticipate stiff competition from Thailand.

“After Covid, we have seen a sharp drop in flights and arrivals,” said Mr Li. “ If a visa-free policy is introduced between, initially, Cambodia and China, we can expect more visitors coming from the world’s second-most populous country.” Based on data from NagaCorp’s annual financial results, direct flights from the Greater China region to Cambodia have only recovered 26 percent compared with 2019.

The pressures on Cambodia to abandon its tourist entry free structure on a wider scale are growing anyway. The Thai premier Srettha Thavisin is busy promoting the idea of a mini-Schengen regional agreement whereby international holidaymakers will be able to visit Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Laos and Vietnam without additional documentation once they have an initial entry stamp to any one of these five partners. Cambodia’s current US$30 entry fee is a significant obstacle in the way of freedom to travel across the Asean region. The prospect of casino gambling in Thailand could be the significant arm twister on Phom Penh.