Tourism program for SE Asian visitors tightened following abuses

TAIPEI (CNA) – A program that makes it easier for tour groups from certain Southeast Asian countries to visit Taiwan has been tightened after it was used in December to get more than 100 Vietnamese into Taiwan to work rather than travel, the Tourism Bureau said.

The bureau said the program, which made it more convenient for citizens of Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos and India to visit Taiwan, will suspend partnerships with foreign travel agencies for two months should three or more members of group tours they arrange overstay their visa in Taiwan or go unaccounted for.

If the number reaches six, the bureau said, those agencies will be removed from the program, said bureau official Chen Pei-chen (陳佩岑).

The restrictions came after 152 Vietnamese tourists –23 of whom arrived in Taiwan in one tour group on Dec. 21 and 129 who came in three groups on Dec. 23 – went missing soon after arriving in Taiwan.

Most of those later tracked down said they had jobs arranged for them when they arrived.

The Tourism Bureau did not know how many of the Vietnamese nationals remain at large, but as of Feb. 19, 56 of them were still unaccounted for, according to National Immigration Agency figures.

The groups arranged travel to Taiwan through the special program, which waives visa fees for groups of at least five tourists from the six countries if they are organized by Tourism Bureau-designated “quality travel agencies” or part of company-sponsored groups.

It also expedites reviews of the visitors and allows electronic visa applications.

Chen said the revisions to the program will include the need for more detailed information from travel agencies when they apply for the program, such as information on visitors’ flights and hotel bookings, and a requirement to report missing tourists within two hours after their absence is noticed.

Also, Taiwanese travel agencies that host tourists under the program must strengthen their communication with both foreign travel agencies and the bureau to report tourist violations, Chen said.

If local travel agencies fail to do so twice, they will be removed from the program for the year of the last violation.

“We hope the overhaul can prevent similar events from happening again,” Chen said.

The program, which was supposed to expire in 2019, will be extended by a year to the end of 2020 after the fix, she said.

Vietnam was temporarily removed from the program following the incident last December, but Chen said it will begin accepting applications from 57 Vietnamese travel agencies on March 15.

By Lee Hsin-Yin