Vietnam drags feet on single visa for Mekong region

 Imagine being able to explore the extensive network of caves in Laos, visit ancient pagodas in Myanmar and eat spicy street food in Thailand before going into Cambodia and cruising the Mekong in Vietnam – all on a single tourist visa.

The tourism windfall that would follow such facilitation has authorities and travel agencies in all countries all agog – with the exception of Vietnamese officialdom, that is.

Travel agencies have been pushing for a one-visa policy that would enable tourists to travel freely across Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. But for all the enthusiasm among its neighbors, Vietnam is likely to balk at, experts say.

“The only country that really has reason to dawdle is Vietnam, because it would require a change in mindset and policies,” Kenneth Atkinson, chairman of the Vietnam Business Forum Working Group for Hospitality and Tourism, told Vietweek.

Vietnam already rejected the common visa concept when it was first mooted in 2010. Vietnamese tourism officials had argued that the extra visa fees would not deter wealthy travelers and visa waivers would cause major losses to the tourism industry.

But experts have dismissed these arguments, saying wealthy travelers account for a small percentage of visitors. They say the single visa is likely to boost visitor arrivals and offset the fall in visa-processing revenues.

Vietnam, along with Myanmar, has the most complicated tourist visa processes in Southeast Asia, according to experts and tourists.

Most Southeast Asian countries have efficient visa on arrival systems which experts say make it easy for tourists to plan their trips. For Vietnam, tourists have to apply for their visas weeks in advance, send their passports to the Vietnamese embassies or go online for  letters to confirm their visas will be issued on arrival and then ending up waiting for a long time after arriving in the country.

Kirk Irvine, a Briton who has visited Vietnam several times because his sister lives in Ho Chi Minh City, said he’d had to wait at the airport for almost two hours to complete his visa-on-arrival process, compared with around half an hour in neighboring countries.

“I’ve heard a lot of travelers say things are quite awkward in the visa-on-arrival department,” Irvine told Vietweek.

Tourists have also complained that when they go to Cambodia or Laos, they can simply turn up and pay US$25 on arrival while Vietnam charges almost double at $45 for a 30-day or 90-day single entry visa, the most expensive in the region.

“You only have to calculate the fees for a family of 4 to see how significant this cost can be,” Atkinson said.

“In these days of budget travel the visa fees for say a family from UK holidaying in Thailand and wishing to visit Vietnam could amount to more than the airfare,” he said.

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