Kuala Lumpur: A Southeast Asian pact to allow visa-free travel for citizens within the grouping has been hailed as a boon for the tourism industry as well as for dreams of regional unity.
Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) ministers took a respite from tense discussions on rogue member state Myanmar to sign the Asean Framework Agreement on Visa Exemption at their annual talks here last week.
Combined with growing affluence in many of the 10 member states, as well as an era of cheap air travel, the pact which will allow two-week visa-free entry for Asean nationals travelling within the bloc is expected to have a real impact.
"This move should result in greater ease of travel within the region and stimulate more social and commercial interaction within Asean," said Tiger Airways chief executive Tony Davis.
"Tiger Airways is well positioned to facilitate this increase in travel demand and is ready to expand its services to make air travel within the region easily available and affordable," said the boss of the Singapore-based carrier.
AirAsia, the Malaysia-based budget airline which pioneered the low-cost sector in the region and which flies to all Asean nations except Laos, was also encouraged by the decision.
"It is a step in the right direction. We are excited about it. For sure it will encourage intra-Asean travel," said chief executive Tony Fernandes.
"When travel is made easy and cheap, it will spur people to travel and AirAsia will benefit," he told AFP. "We are best placed to take advantage of it."
Fernandes said he hopes governments will now reduce airport taxes and other travel-related levies "to make Asean a common market for travel".
The agreement will take effect once it is ratified by all 10 member countries. Asean groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Bilateral agreements between some Asean countries requiring their nationals to obtain visas currently limit intra-regional travel.
Myanmar, for example, requires a visa for all visitors into the military-ruled nation, including those from Asean countries.
Southeast Asian governments have long promoted closer integration of the region of 500 million people as a vital initiative to remain economically relevant as the long shadow of regional power China looms.
But while dry debate over tariff reductions and free-trade deals may pass people by, the visa pact has been seized on as a concrete example of how closer relations can provide real benefits to ordinary people.
Asean spokesman M.C. Abad said the agreement would help integrate the region - a motley collection of democracies and dictatorships, and economies both developed and dysfunctional.
"This agreement should contribute to promoting people-to-people contact in Southeast Asia. It could increase tourism in the Asean region," he said.
Asean countries recorded 51.39 million visitor arrivals in 2005, 45 percent of whom were from other nations within the bloc, Abad told AFP.
Former Asean secretary general Rodolfo Severino also hailed the multilateral pact.
"It's good because everybody is committed to it and it's harder to get out of the agreement," Severino said. "If it's on a bilateral basis, it's easier to get rid of it."
Severino also said that Myanmar's move to become part of the agreement indicated a change in policy in that country, which tightly controls the movements of its citizens as well as incoming foreigners.
"That's a political decision on their part. If indeed they are in the same status as the rest of Asean, then it is a policy change that they have undertaken." - AFP
Source: Daily Express