Thai and Taiwanese flags are seen at a celebration hosted by Taiwan’s representative office in Bangkok. Photo: Handout

Taiwan’s “pivot to Southeast Asia” to shed its economic and trade reliance on mainland China has hit a roadblock in Thailand, where tourists and investors are soon to be entangled in more red tape than before.

Starting next month, individual travelers from Taiwan heading for Thailand will be required to produce financial proof in order to obtain a tourist visa, as Bangkok moves to scrap the preferential visa-upon-arrival treatment for nationals from some places, including Taiwanese.

The new visa red tape was announced by Bangkok’s representative office in Taipei, which said that with the launch of an e-visa application and e-payment system, holders of Republic of China (Taiwan) passports would be required to apply for a visa online and schedule an appointment to submit their passports in person at the office, and that they would also need to provide bank statements covering the previous three months as proof that they had sufficient funds for their travel expenses while in Thailand.

The number of Taiwanese who visited Thailand in the first 10 months of this year totaled 700,356, a 24% increase from the same period last year, Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau data showed.

Bangkok’s new visa requirements are seen as a rebuff to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s “New Southbound Policy” to channel Taiwanese investments and businesses out of China toward Southeast Asia and turn the region of more than 600 million people into the island’s economic hinterland. Geographical proximity and cultural affinity are touted by Tsai and senior officials as the ground for Taiwan to build on its ambitions for Southeast Asia.

Thailand, the largest country in the continental portion of the region, is a popular tourist destination and among Taiwan’s largest trading partners across Southeast Asia. Taiwan has waived visas for Thai tourists since 2016 to encourage more of them to travel to the island.

Now with the new visa requirements, Taiwan’s travel agencies have threatened to boycott tours to Thailand, accusing Bangkok of violating the principle of reciprocal treatment. The new policy, effective from Sunday, also applies to tourists from China, France and the United Kingdom.

Taiwan is unlikely to retaliate by applying similar requirements to Thai visitors, however, as the island has to woo tourists from elsewhere to offset the lost business after China banned its nationals from visiting Taiwan since August.

It is understood that Taiwan’s representative office in Bangkok has been liaising with the Thai authorities to lobby for the new visa requirements to be dropped, but Thai officials have been lukewarm to Taipei’s request and to the latter’s calls to participate in the New Southbound Policy scheme.

In 2017, Hung Hsiu-chu, chairwoman of Taiwan’s opposition Kuomintang party, had to cancel her trip to Bangkok because of unexplained delays in visa processing.

Taiwan used to be a key source of foreign investments for Thailand, with a peak of US$13.55 billion in 2014, yet Chinese capital has long overtaken the island’s economic largesse and investments under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Thailand has reportedly agreed to extend its visa-upon-arrival treatment for Chinese tourists for another year to the end of 2020.

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