The Thai government appears to be doubling down on pursuing its quality not quantity approach towards foreign tourism which is now being extended into the provision of work permits to members of the Elite Card visa access scheme which is targeting larger personal investment from foreigners coming to Thailand even as the Covid 19 crisis squeezes foreigners who are existing small business holders in Thailand on non-immigrant visas.

Many have already splashed out for the Thailand Elite card scheme introduced by Thaksin Shinawatra’s government in 2003 and which, as well as luxury perks, offers a visa for up to 5 years and crucially, at this time, access to Thailand via a certificate of entry and use of the alternative quarantine scheme. In May, this year, Thailand’s richest man, Dhanin Chearavanont, outlined an opportunity, during this Covid 19 world crisis, for Thailand to position itself as a secure oasis in a Covid racked world and told the government that wealthy tourists would be willing to pay highly for such an offering. This week, it is being revealed that the cabinet is to consider offering work permits to lifetime and superior Elite cardholders if they invest $1 million in Thailand within their first year in the kingdom.

The latest scheme to go before the cabinet to promote Thai tourism will be an improved Thailand Elite visa card where those paying ฿1 to ฿2 million for longterm or lifetime membership, while having full access to Thailand, can apply for a work permit provided that they invest $1 million in the Thai economy during the first year of the card. There are currently over 11,000 Elite cardholders who can now also enter Thailand with a certificate of entry but subject to 14-days quarantine. Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn, would only confirm, this week, that the proposal is to be presented to cabinet and that such cardholders would be high net worth individuals. The company that operates the card scheme has revealed that 25% of cardholders are currently Chinese. It follows Thailand’s richest man, Dhanin Chearavanont (inset) advocated such an initiative in May.

The vision of Thailand’s richest man for Thai tourism in 2020 and beyond may be coming to life, at least in the short term, as wealthy foreign buyers splash out a minimum of ฿500,000 that allows them access to Thailand for five years albeit under the current strict and expensive 14-day quarantine scheme in luxury hotels.

Now Tourism Authority of Thailand chiefs, alongside the Thailand Elite card company, are planning to extend the card to facilitate business owners and investors in Thailand.

The government and the Thailand Elite Card organisation are looking at ways to expand the flexibility and appeal of the card by allowing those with Elite visas to also apply for work permits and invest in business opportunities in the kingdom.

It comes in a week when thousands of foreigners, who have lived in Thailand for years or even decades, were faced with the pressing problem of renewing Non-Immigrant B visas for their business holdings which has, heretofore, allowed them to live and work in Thailand.

See story here about the current crisis for Non-Immigrant B business holders in Thailand.

The new proposal related to the Thailand Elite card was raised this week by Tourism Authority of Thailand Governor, Yuthasak Supasorn, who said that the new proposal would first have to be presented to the Thai cabinet for consideration.

Work permits only available for those spending over ฿1 million on the card scheme in the first year

The new work permit option would only be available to those purchasing the higher level Thailand elite card with lifetime and superior membership and visa package for 20 years and beyond which costs between ฿1 million and ฿2 million.

The provision of the work permit would be dependent on the cardholder investing not less than $1 million in Thailand a year after entering the country and providing evidence of this to Thai authorities.

Their right to apply for and hold a work permit on the card would be withdrawn, if, after one year, the elite cardholder fails to invest although other privileges associated with the card would remain in force.

Tourism chief differentiates between this sort of investment and industrial-scale projects

Mr Yuthasak differentiated such investments from industry level projects being pursued by Thailand’s Board of Investment.

He explained that the type of individual paying for this elite card would be a high income and net worth person who may be interested in boutique investment opportunities in Thailand.

The President of the Thailand Elite card company, Mr Somchai Sungsawang, revealed that his organisation currently has 11,000 members worldwide with a spike in interest in August and this month, as the visa amnesty deadline approached and many foreigners explored their options for staying on in the kingdom.

He revealed that 47% of members have the basic Elite card option for five years at ฿500,000 while 22% have lifetime membership and 14% have a 20-year plan. The remaining members are family type cardholders.

Thailand’s richest man proposed this approach to the government in May to reposition tourism

In May, the richest man in Thailand, Dhanin Chearavanont, urged the Thai government to be bolder and take some risks to resurrect the decimated Thai economy. 

The multi-billionaire warned that it stood to lose trillions of baht a year by its failure to open the country back up to tourism.

However, what the Chairman of the huge CP Group conglomerate had in mind was re-launching Thai tourism as a haven for wealthy people around the world who wish to come and stay in Thailand.

The highly successful businessman urged the government to use the Covid 19 crisis in such a fashion to create an opportunity to upsell Thailand as a tourist destination for the world’s elite who can afford to pay.

New Economic Recovery Centre will see pressure to move the country’s economy forwards over fear

Now, weeks after the Prime Minister’s newly installed economic team began working within the Economic Recovery Centre, comes news of this other push from the beleaguered Tourism and Sports Ministry to selectively open up the kingdom to wealthier tourists but, this time, on a carefully controlled basis.

Officials at the Tourism Ministry are battling against a headwind of local opposition surprisingly in tourist hotspots severely impacted by the virus due to the real perception in Thailand that the threat from the virus is linked to western tourists.

Reports of a strengthening second wave in Europe and of the death toll of 200,000 people in the United States are certainly driving such fears which are underpinned by the views of some of the kingdom’s most respected medical experts.

The new economic centre, chaired by the Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha, comprises of 22 government committees and officials all tasked with raising the issue of economic recovery to the fore to counterbalance the powerful Covid 19 Situation Administration Centre which effectively has run Thailand since the end of March this year and whose overriding goal is public health.

The key point to note, of course, is that this situation remains fluid as the economic situation and imperative are continuously balanced against the virus threat outside Thailand.

Last week, the cabinet approved a new long-stay tourist visa which allows the holder to stay in Thailand for up to nine months but comes with severe and demanding entry requirements.

This includes the key demand that any tourist entering the kingdom must spend 14 days in the Alternative State Quarantine system at their own expense.

Tourism Authority of Thailand – the old fashioned high season of 2020/2021 is off for now

The news comes after a key official with Thailand’s Tourism Authority indicated weeks ago that there are no plans or even discussion with regards to opening up Thailand to full-blown mass tourism until well into 2021 if at all.

This is the official position with Thailand’s airspace now closed to nearly all commercial passenger traffic except for specially approved repatriation and chartered flights.

The message is clear, the old high season for Thai tourism that would have occurred in 2020/21 is now off. There seems to be little doubt about this as matters now stand.

Minister of Tourism and Sports comes forward with another scheme to kick start tourism after past proposals have been rejected

In recent weeks, however, Tourism and Sports Minister, Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn has come forward with new schemes such as the long-stay tourist visa and the special ‘Phuket Model’ approach which he wished to extend to tourist hotspots following the rejection of a number initiatives now by the all-powerful Covid 19 Situation Administration Centre (CCSA) since the crisis began at the end of March this year.

As with other proposals and even though it was approved in August by the cabinet in principle, this one is still only being discussed and reviewed by health officials and the CCSA. 

The plan currently involves a sealed-off tourist zone in Phuket with the possible extension of the facility to areas such as Ko Samui, Chiang Rai, Chaing Mai and Pattaya also envisaged.

There has been stiff opposition on the ground to the minister’s plans although it was reported from Hua Hin, this week, that the mood in that resort is changing as the public and tourism stakeholders alike realise that the kingdom has to take a chance if it is to restart its economy despite increasingly dire reports from Europe.

Plans still in discussion and would see tourist quarantining in hotels for 14 days in sealed off areas

The ‘Phuket model’ proposal would allow authorities to grant entry into Thailand to select visitors who must quarantine for 14 days at selected hotels based on the increasingly successful alternative quarantine scheme.

Thereafter, the visitors would be free to travel around the island but must spend 21 days in quarantine to be free to travel within Thailand. 

Obviously, the scheme is for tourists interested in an extended stay in Thailand. There is also the mooted possibility that the quarantine may include access to a sealed-off beach area near hotels during the 14-day quarantine period extending to a 1 km radius.

The plan has proved to be controversial and been questioned closely by a sceptical Covid 19 Situation Administration Centre which still retains a hawkish approach to any suggestion of lowering the country’s guard against the virus.

Teams from the Covid 19 Centre (CCSA) and the Tourism Authority have visited Phuket and other tourism areas in recent weeks to examine the proposal being put forward by the minister.

Thailand Elite card, however, is up and running

By comparison, the nuts and bolts are already in place with regards to Thailand’s Elite Card entry system.

But at a cost. This is a visa waiver programme introduced in 2003 by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports at that time and supported by ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Currently, the Thailand Elite Card and organisation, which has over 11,000 members, is headed up by Mr Somchai.

The company achieved nearly ฿1.3 billion in sales in 2019 and is supported by the Royal Thai Government and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

At the end of last year before the virus impact in January, the company was expanding its operations throughout the world and had targeted ฿1.5 billion in sales for 2020.

Card allows holders to apply for a certificate of entry into Thailand through any Thai embassy

In recent months, Thailand’s authorities have extended entry into Thailand under the certificate of entry scheme administered by Thai embassies worldwide and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok to Elite cardholders. 

Those using the facility must, like other foreign passengers, quarantine for 14 days within the alternative quarantine scheme at their own cost. 

Thailand Elite executives are reporting a strong uptick in applications and memberships for the cards with a 7% increase reported so far for the year which ends this September.

 The card costs ฿500,000 although there are variations in the pricing rising to ฿2 million.

In addition to a 5-year visa, there are perks such as limousine collection at the airport, access to an exclusive lounger and golf memberships.

On arrival, holders granted a 12-month visa

Foreigners arriving in Thailand with the card are granted a 12-month visa with special airport facilities. This can be extended for up to five years by standing at a local immigration office and paying the visa extension fee of ฿1,900.

Thailand elite cardholders are still required to file 90-day residency notices and other immigration-related forms in the same way as other visa holders at their local immigration office.

A significant point to note is that if an Elite visa cardholder is found to break the law in Thailand or commit an offence, then as with all visas, the facility is cancelled leaving the holder subject to prosecution also for immigration offences.

Chinese visitors make up 25% of the membership base of the ‘friends of Thailand’ the card scheme

The card guarantees automatic access to Thailand for those willing to pay the price but is currently subject to controlled entry as with other select foreigners considered to have close ties with Thailand. The holders of Thailand Elite cards are considered to be ‘friends of Thailand’ by paying to support the kingdom.

It is already being purchased in large numbers by wealthy Chinese buyers who already make up 25% of the card’s membership base. 

Some have already arrived in Bangkok and have entered the quarantine system since Thailand Elite holders were granted entry at the end of July. 

Nearly all, except for a handful of select foreigners who have used the card with chartered jets to land in Thailand, have arrived on government coordinated repatriation flights from key cities throughout the world.

Scheme and organisation could be a short term vehicle for Mr Dhanin’s vision of Thailand’s tourism future as an exclusive option for wealthy people

In an indication of the way things might be going before a full solution to the Covid 19 outbreak which is likely now to involve either a vaccine or as is increasingly more likely, a blunting of the threat through developments such as T cell immunity as is strongly suspected in Sweden or a reported variation of the virus making the threat less dangerous, it appears that options for tourists to Thailand will be limited.

This card, although expensive, just might be the answer for wealthier tourists or people who simply love visiting the kingdom.

The Thailand Elite card scheme also provides a practical basis to implement Mr Dhanin’s prescription for a new departure for Thai tourism.

It could also be further developed and expanded if this emergency does not end relatively quickly.

Minister indicates that Thailand Elite members may be first to use a new tourist tracking app

In an indication of how this might develop, some months ago, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society, Puttipong Punnakan, announced expedited work was underway on a new smartphone app to again track tourists in the kingdom to maintain security against the Covid 19 virus.

Mr Puttipong indicated to reporters that Thailand Elite cards holders may be among the first to use the new application as it appears Thailand is beginning to contemplate alternative steps towards reviving its now lost but once highly lucrative foreign tourism industry but currently on a different scale and for a different market.

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