BANGKOK (BLOOMBERG) - Thailand's "pay to stay" visa programme for wealthy foreigners is seeing an expansion opportunity, with visions of the country becoming a haven for expats thanks to its relative success in containing the coronavirus.
The Thailand Elite Card is a residential-visa programme for affluent expats, investors and long-stay groups. Membership, which ranges from 500,000 baht to 2 million baht (S$22,126 to S$ 88,509), provides for a renewable five-year visa.
It also comes with perks, which at the top end include limousine transport, jet and yacht charters, medical checkups and golf at championship courses in Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya.
With borders currently closed and global travel at a near standstill, this would seem like the worst possible time for a visa programme.
But Thailand Elite, which has been around for 17 years, is holding up during the pandemic. It forecasts 2,288 new enrollees in the fiscal year through September, up 6.8 per cent from the previous year, and revenue is seen climbing 7.7 per cent to 1.4 billion baht.
Expats already living in the country on other types of visas have accounted for 70 per cent of subscriptions this year, having concluded that it's better than dealing with one-year work, retirement or marriage permits that often require multiple trips to government offices, lawyers and fixed-deposits in local banks.
"We have refocused our business by targeting people who are within the country, want to stay for the long-term and are not confident of the virus situation back in their home countries," said Mr Somchai Soongswang, president of the card's state-controlled operator, Thailand Privilege Card Co, in an interview.
The possibilities of attracting subscribers outside of Thailand are currently limited because of the tight border controls, but Mr Somchai believes there's a growing market of people abroad who want a safe, comfortable home, with Thailand being a good choice.
Thailand is heavily dependent on tourism, and virus containment measures have taken a heavy toll on the economy, with expectations it will shrink by 8.5 per cent this year.
With its coronavirus situation relatively under control - it has about 3,400 cases, and has been free of local transmissions since May 26 - Thailand has been exploring ways to ease restrictions.
Currently, mainland Chinese account for about a quarter of Thailand Elite cardholders. The company will make another push to attract overseas markets in 2021, expecting that's when border restrictions will be eased. Hong Kong and Australia residents are potential customers, Mr Somchai said.
Membership is essentially open to anyone who is looking for a long-term stay and is willing to "contribute to the economy," he said.