Fond memories of Thailand ruined by immigration queues


Fond memories of Thailand ruined by immigration queues

With the New Year set to begin tomorrow, the peak travel season is in full swing, with this year being reminiscent of pre-pandemic times. In the first 11 months of 2023, Thailand welcomed 24.5 million visitors, with Bangkok ranking as the most visited city on the planet (Pattaya and Phuket rounded out the top 20 list). That trend is continuing as cold weather grips many parts of the world and people jet off to the kingdom to enjoy the final days of the year or start the new one with a much-needed holiday.

Usually, the first entry point, and impression of Thailand for most tourists is Suvarnabhumi Airport. Unfortunately, upon arrival last Monday between 12am and 2am, tourists were given an unpleasant surprise as they were greeted with long queues and lengthy waits at passport control.

Viral images and videos on social media showed the line at immigration spilling out into the arrival hall, a nightmare sight for many travellers after a long flight. Officials said the queue was the result of flight delays that caused arrivals to swell by more than a third of numbers normally expected at that time, but insisted the matter was dealt with swiftly by increasing the number of officers.

It does appear to have been a one-off incident with no further reports of congestion but, as a precautionary measure, officials have already begun advising departing passengers to arrive early due to potential crowds. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time we’ve heard of chaos at Suvarnabhumi. Such reports surface frequently, especially during peak travel times, but it seems few lessons have been learned and not enough has been done to prevent repeats.

On an average day, Suvarnabhumi serves 120,000 people, but this high season, authorities are expecting 150,000 passengers per day, due in part due to new visa-free policies for tourists from countries like China and India to boost tourism.

But a similar problem was reported last year, too, when these policies were not in effect. In January this year, a surge in passengers also caused delays at passport control, with former transport minister Saksayam Chidchob coming out to say that the Airports of Thailand (AOT) had been instructed to add 60 immigration counters to increase the handling capacity to 3,000 people per hour.

It seems not much has changed in the arrival hall, though. But some progress has been made for passengers departing the country as Suvarnabhumi now has an automatic channel for foreign passport holders. However, this hasn’t helped reduce queues at departure and there is concern over the lack of an exit stamp for passengers using this channel.

Poor service may not deter tourists who may view queues at airports as the price of travelling, but it does harm the country’s image. In the 2023 Skytrax World Airport Awards, Suvarnabhumi ranked an abysmal 68th out of 100, a marginal improvement from last year. But compared to its ranking of 10th in 2010, it is clear officials need to focus on service again.

Besides waiting for new counters and increased manpower to solve the issue, Suvarnabhumi needs to invest in technology to make arrivals efficient, as has already been accomplished by the installation of automated gates at departure. Technology such as e-gates, self-service kiosks, and biometric verification can help expand handling capacity beyond the minimum requirement to accommodate unforeseen circumstances.

For example, not all foreigners heading to immigration control are tourists. Some may hold a long-term visa such as a work permit, retirement or education visa, or the Thailand Elite card. A self-service kiosk that serves these passengers may ease some of the traffic and help immigration officers process genuine tourists faster.

Another option is to improve communication between airlines and airport staff, especially during peak travel times. There is no reason to be caught off guard by the inevitable surge of passengers following an earlier delay. Had Suvarnabhumi coordinated better, the airport would have had time to prepare and increase manpower at immigration rather than attempt to figure out what was going on amid the chaos.

Ultimately, a slight delay at the airport will likely be forgotten by tourists once they settle into their holiday.

But if Suvarnabhumi and Thailand wants to achieve elite status in terms of a seamless travel experience, minor incidents such as airport congestion do not work in its favour. We don’t have to look far to Singapore’s Changi Airport to see a system that can adapt to any situation.

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.