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Thailand visa waiver unlikely soon despite pleas

The much-anticipated tourist visa waiver between China and Thailand is unlikely to materialize anytime soon despite pleas from tourism operators in both countries, according to a Thai minister.

The Southeast Asian nation will need more time to improve security measures and improve infrastructure to manage any surge in Chinese tourists that a waiver would bring, Thai Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak said during the 2013 China International Travel Mart, which ended on Sunday in Kunming.

"The government is concerned that some problems and inconvenience will probably arise for travelers if the visa waiver takes effect without preparation," the minister said.

"Such problems will particularly affect those from China, which is already the biggest source of foreign visitors to Thailand," he added, without giving a specific date as to when Thailand will be ready for the waiver.

Tourism infrastructure in Thailand will need a substantial upgrade first, and improvements should be carried out at airports, on cruise services and to enhance security, he said. Chinese-language signs are also necessary to inform travelers of locations and directions.

Thai authorities may provide multiple-entry visas to Chinese tourists in the short term to facilitate them, he said.

He suggested China take the first step in the process by waiving visas for Thais unilaterally because China has a better infrastructure.

Based on the original proposal by Thai authorities, Premier Li Keqiang told the Thai Parliament in Bangkok during his visit to Thailand this month that the Chinese government is willing to hold talks about bilateral visa exemptions for tourists from the two countries.

Li said visa exemptions for regular passport holders will offer Chinese and Thai tourists more convenience and promote more people-to-people exchanges.

Thailand is the first member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to enter discussions with China on this issue.

China is now the biggest source of tourists to Thailand, with about 3.7 million Chinese visiting in the first nine months of this year, up 90 percent over the same period of 2012, according to the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

This year, the number is expected to be 4 million.