Thailand Elite Card generates more controversy than revenue for the country – address the problems of the Thailand Elite Card exclusive program
Thailand’s exclusive Elite Card program is back in the public spotlight after Phua Thai MP said in Parliament that shady Chinese businessmen have become members of the privilege program.
The MP’s statement could be another flaw in the Thailand Elite Card program, one of the most controversial government projects that has attracted criticism since its inception, the Bangkok Post reported.
History of the Thailand Elite Card program
Since its inception in 2003, the Thailand Elite Card program has been designed as an exclusive membership program aimed at businessmen, foreign investors and travelers wishing to make short- and long-term trips to Thailand. The goal of the program was to maximize revenue from visitors with high purchasing power.
At the time, the Thai government wanted to attract at least 1 million wealthy members by offering a number of privileges that the private sector could not offer.
The Thailand Elite Card program is controlled and managed by the Thailand Privilege Card Company (TPC), a 1 billion baht state-owned enterprise in which the Tourism Authority of Thailand owns 100 percent.
Its status as a government agency allows TPC to provide many exclusive privileges, such as long-term visas. Last year, Thailand’s cabinet approved a new privilege, a work permit that can be obtained under the “Flexible Plus Program” in exchange for an investment of at least $1 million in Thailand.
Offering a range of exclusive services from the government, the Thailand Elite Card earned the unofficial name “angel card” when it debuted during Thaksin Shinawatra’s premiership. Members of the elite program were perceived as VIP guests, as they were provided luxurious services, starting with their arrival at the airport. A personal assistant in a gold-colored uniform greeted the guest to escort them to the Fast Track lane for expedited immigration clearance and to take care of their luggage before directing them to a waiting limousine.
In addition to a wide range of services to facilitate long-term visa and airport services, the Thailand Elite Card offers additional benefits such as golf, spa, limousine transfers to the airport and medical screenings. In addition, program participants are helped to solve such difficult tasks for foreigners in Thailand, such as obtaining a driver’s license and opening a bank account.
Challenges of the Thailand Elite Card Program
The existence of the Thailand Elite Card program has hung in balance due to political disputes since its inception. In the first 10 years, not only did TPC fail to attract 1 million members as promised, but it also faced a loss of more than 1 billion baht. The losses accumulated mainly because of the “unlimited” services offered by the original card, such as limousines, golf and spa services.
Moreover, since 2,534 cardholders are lifetime members, without a major restructuring, TPC could be at a loss in the long run.
Along with alleged corruption in the organization, which led the travel agency to go to the investigation committee in 2009, Thailand Elite Card has been on the verge of liquidation many times, especially during the Democratic Party-led government. Even with the influence of the government-backed party, this troubled company has never had a rosy path, especially in terms of stability.
On April 26, 2011, the cabinet approved a liquidation plan for TPC, followed by an order suspending the sale of membership to new comers and further financial operations in 2012. At that time, TPC was only allowed to continue serving members to avoid conflict with existing cardholders. However, liquidation was seen as a challenge, as compensation to members was estimated at 2.5-3 billion baht.
TPC was frozen until 2013, when the new government led by the Phua Thai Party and Yingluck Chinnawat as prime minister decided to bring Thailand Elite Card back to life under a revised business plan.
The Thailand Elite Card has also survived under the military government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-Ochoi until now, with gradual improvements through cost-saving measures and product redesign.
In fiscal year 2021, TPC recorded its first-ever net profit of 238 million baht, thanks to travel restrictions in Thailand in 2020-21, which helped accelerate card sales as people looked for a shortcut to convenient entry.
One promising market during the pandemic was Chinese customers, as TPC reported 185% sales growth in 2022, representing a 35% increase in card memberships of more than 20,000.
Thailand Elite Card Membership Cost and Privileges
The cost of Thailand Elite Card membership ranges from 600,000 to 2 million baht for a period of five to 20 years.
The most popular scheme is the “Elite Easy Access” with a cost of 600,000 baht for a five-year membership, which does not include any additional services such as golf, spa, medical examination or banking services. Members receive a five-year multi-entry visa, which can also be renewed if the card exceeds five years. Stays in Thailand can last for up to one year for each entry.
Standard services for each membership type are elite personal assistants at the airport on arrival and departure and VIP lounge at the airport.
The Elite Ultimate Privilege (EUP) is the most expensive option at 2 million baht. Valid for 20 years, members can enjoy a full range of services, ranging from unlimited limousine transfers when boarding international flights at Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Samui airports.
The package for 2 million baht also offers 24 visits a year to a golf club, massage and spa, as well as an annual medical checkup and dental checkup.
The two 1-million-baht program options, Elite Superior Extension (ESE) and Elite Privilege Access (EPA), have 20 and 10-year terms, respectively.
Both options have fewer benefits than the most expensive card, such as limited limousine transfers for the EPA and no transfers for the ESE. There is also no free golf and massage for both cardholders, but instead participants will be offered discounts.
In addition to these privileges, cardholders worth 1-2 million baht will be able to apply for the Flexible Plus program if they invest $1 million in Thailand through a real estate, stock exchange or public limited company within 1 year from the date of application.
Eligible program members will be able to request a work permit by changing their preferred entry visa (PE) type to a non-immigrant visa.
How many participants are in the Thailand Elite Card program
According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the parent company of TPC, there were 20,884 Thailand Elite Card members in 2022, with clients from 20 countries, which helped generate 3.58 billion baht in revenue for the country.
As of 2022, the majority of active members, or 35%, were Chinese, followed by Japanese (8%) and U.S. citizens (6%). Other regional markets include Southeast Asia, North Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.
The membership program is marketed through appointed agents who have the potential to attract high-end clients. TPC currently has 24 agents.
Upon receipt of an application, TPC conducts a preliminary background check and contacts the Bureau of Immigration and the Department of Consular Affairs of Thailand for a background check. If the result of the background check is positive, TPC sends a letter of approval and the applicant must pay the membership fee and other costs in order to receive the card and enjoy its benefits.
The entire process takes 2-3 months, depending on the applicant’s citizenship, completeness of documents, and review time.
Meanwhile, members still have to report every 90 days if they have a long stay in Thailand, but TPC can do this on its own for certain types of members.
Membership can be revoked if the TPC conditions are not met, the benefits granted are used in a corrupt manner, or the member commits acts that are contrary to public order and morality and affect Thailand Elite Card activities.
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