Bangkok — Thai officials say the new 500 baht (US$16) entry fee being mulled for foreign tourists is to help pay for their unpaid medical bills at hospitals, according to reports.
“The policy is the result of foreign tourists who have accidents or fall sick in Thailand and seek treatment at our hospitals but then can’t pay their bills,” said Charnvit Phrathep, the Health Ministry’s Deputy Permanent Secretary, on Tuesday.
Foreign tourists’ unpaid hospital bills cost the country an estimated 700 million baht (US$22.4 million) per year, according to the ministry.
“We try to send the bills on to the respective embassies but they always say they have no budgets,” said Charnvit.
“We will be the first country to implement such a policy, but Britain and Cambodia are considering something similar.”
In an interview with the Bangkok Post last weekend, Health Minister Pradit Sintavanarong said the Interior Ministry, Health Ministry and Tourism Ministry had agreed on the policy.
They were trying to implement it from January 1, 2014.
Pradit was also quoted as saying the new policy might help prevent “trash” tourists from entering Thailand.
Charnvit said though most Western tourists had health insurance, they would still have to pay the 500 baht entry fee, and would benefit from the policy.
“In the longer term it will add value to the tourism industry,” he said. “We think most foreigners can afford 500 baht and if they come here and have a heart attack they will be happy to know they can get treatment at the nearest hospital with no questions asked.”
But the idea got a negative reaction from the tourism sector, with some warning it could keep visitors away, say reports.
Martin Craig, chairman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association, told AAP the fee would drive travellers elsewhere.
“It’s a sledgehammer to crack a nut and it doesn’t smell right to me.”
Samphan Panphat, adviser to the Thai Hotels Association, said most foreign tourists who come to Thailand on tours “already have medical insurance so this fee would be redundant”.
“And there are questions about the transparency of the scheme. If Thailand does something strange like this, there could be a long-term negative impact on the whole industry,” said Samphan.
Tourism has been a huge part of the Thai economy for decades. Last year, Thailand attracted 22 million tourists, earning the nation 997 billion baht (US$32 billion) in foreign exchange revenues. Image/Pornchai Kittiwongsakul/Getty Images