Thailand, popularly known as the "Land of Smiles," is no longer smiling so much as fears grow that the rapidly rising inflow of tourists may be undermining the country's national security.
Even as Thailand hit a record 38.3 million visitors last year, the issue has taken on added urgency following recent proposals to grant visa-free access to tourists from China and India, which together accounted for almost a third of the country's visitors in 2018.
Since 2013, when the annual influx of tourists nearly topped 30 million -- mainly due to a meteoric rise in the number of Chinese visitors -- Thai authorities have been struggling to monitor the whereabouts of foreigners, largely because of the shortcomings of the country's traditional, paper-based system for registering entries.
A biometric identification system was recently introduced at major entry points to improve data collection. But the country's immigration bureau remains understaffed, and would have faced significant increased pressure as a result of the visa-free regime for Chinese and Indian visitors, which was proposed by the Ministry of Tourism and Sport in July.
The plan was part of a broader campaign to boost the number of tourists to 40 million a year to help reignite the country's stuttering economy, which has been badly hit by the fallout from the intensifying trade war between the U.S. and China. Exports to China fell 15% in June from a year earlier, following a 7% drop in May.
The strong baht -- currently trading at about 30.7 to the dollar -- has also hindered Thai exports. Ghanyapad Tantipipatpong, chairwoman of the Thai National Shippers' Council, said in July that exporters wanted to see the currency decline to between 32 and 33 to the dollar.
Thailand is already a popular destination for Chinese and Indian tourists, in part because of its central location in Southeast Asia and widely available budget flights, and in part because its culture reflects the historical influence of its two giant near-neighbors. This year, an estimated 11 million Chinese and 2 million Indians are expected to visit.
Tourists from 19 countries, including China and India, can obtain visas at Thai entry points by paying a fee of 2,000 baht, and the fee has recently been waived for visitors who can provide certain supporting documents. However, the tourism ministry's proposal for visa-free entry proved to be a step too far for most Thais, triggering media claims that the proposal amounted to a sellout of the country's sovereignty.
The cabinet, headed by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, rejected the plan, citing security threats -- the first time a Thai government has formally acknowledged that increasing the number of tourists could be problematic.
Prayuth, a former army chief who led a military coup in 2014 and now heads a civilian government, called for increased monitoring of foreign visitors, noting warnings from Western intelligence agencies that Thailand is becoming a rendezvous point for terrorists and extremist groups plotting attacks elsewhere.
Thai Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai said Thailand needed to improve the quality of its tourism infrastructure, including the preparedness of law enforcement agencies, before it could consider a sizable increase in the number of visitors.
He added that given the increasing integration of Southeast Asian economies Thailand would have to pay more attention to preventing "easy infiltration of Thai territory to conduct activities that may create difficulties for our friends and neighbors."
Russia, which has a visa waiver program with Thailand as a result of a 2003 agreement, provides a good example of what can go wrong. The number of Russian tourists has increased from fewer than 100,000 a year to almost 1.5 million last year, contributing to the establishment of a large Russian community in southern Pattaya, on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand.
Although relations between Russian visitors and local Thai communities are generally peaceful, there are concerns that a number of mercenaries and criminal elements from the former Soviet Union have set down roots in Thailand. According to Thai police, they have engaged in money laundering, drug smuggling, weapons trading, human trafficking and other crimes.
In 2008, Viktor Bout, a well-known Russian arms trader, was apprehended in Pattaya, causing outrage in Moscow. Bout was subsequently extradited to the U.S. and sentenced to 25 years in prison after being convicted on charges of conspiracy and terrorism.
Since then, Thailand has been cautious about granting visa waivers although it has had considerable success with a bilateral visa waiver program with Japan.
Thailand needs to strike a balance as it deals with the visa issue. It must not discourage tourism because the industry brings in much-needed revenue, and it must ensure that it does not appear to be discriminating against visitors from specific countries. But it must also keep its own house in order by adopting an effective and efficient system to manage the influx.
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Thailand.