The lowdown on the high-end scheme
The Thailand Elite Card seems to generate more controversy than income for the country
published : 1 Feb 2023 at 05:50
newspaper section: Business
writer: Narumon Kasemsuk
The Thailand Elite Card is in the public spotlight again after Jirayu Huangsap, an MP from the Pheu Thai Party, said in parliament last week that shady Chinese business operators had become members of this privilege programme.
This claim could become another flaw for Thailand Elite Card -- one of the most disputed government projects which has drawn criticism since its inception.
Q: What is the story behind Thailand Elite card?
Since its establishment in 2003, Thailand Elite Card has been designed as an exclusive membership programme targeting businessmen, foreign investors and travellers seeking short- and long-stay trips with an aim to maximise income from visitors with high purchasing power.
The government at the time wished to lure at least 1 million wealthy members by offering a number of privileges that the private sector could not offer.
Thailand Elite Card is supervised and operated by the Thailand Privilege Card (TPC), the state enterprise in which the Tourism Authority of Thailand holds a 100% stake with registered capital of 1 billion baht.
As a state agency, this status enabled TPC to grant many exclusive perks, such as long-term visas, as well as the latest privilege approved by the cabinet last year -- a work permit which can be obtained through its "Flexible Plus Programme" in return for at least US$1 million investment in Thailand.
By offering a bunch of exclusive services from the government, the Thailand Elite Card was dubbed the "Angel Card" when it debuted during Thaksin Shinawatra's premiership.
Elite members have also been perceived as VIP guests as they would be treated with luxury services starting from the jet bridge on arrival at the airport where an Elite Personal Assistant in a unique gold-coloured uniform waited to escort them to the premium lane at immigration, taking care of luggage before guiding them to an awaiting limousine.
Besides a wide range of visa facilitation and services at the airport, Thailand Elite Card also offers extra benefits like golf, spa, limousine transfers to and from airport, health checkups, Elite Personal liasons to help deal with uneasy tasks for foreigners such as issuing a driving licence and opening a bank account.
Q: Why is Thailand Elite Card always a hot issue?
The survival of Thailand Elite Card has hung in the balance due to political disputes since its establishment.
After the first 10 years, TPC not only failed to entice 1 million members as promised, it also struggled with accumulated losses of over 1 billion baht, mostly stemming from 'unlimited' services offered with the original card, such as limousines, golf and spa services.
Moreover, with 2,534 cardholders being lifetime members, TPC might have to incur being in the red in the long run without major restructuring.
Along with alleged corruption within the organisation which caused the TAT to set up an investigating committee in 2009, Thailand Elite Card was on the the verge of being liquidated many times, notably during the Democrat Party-led government.
Even with the clout of a government-backed programme, the trouble-ridden firm never had a rosy path, particularly in terms of stability.
On April 26, 2011, the cabinet approved the plan to dissolve TPC operations, followed by an order to suspend new membership sales and further financial transactions in 2012.
TPC at the time was only allowed to continue member services, in order to avoid any conflict with existing cardholders.
However, liquidation was deemed a difficult task as the compensation to members was estimated at 2.5-3 billion baht.
TPC had been frozen until 2013 when the new government led by Pheu Thai Party and Yingluck Shinawatra as the prime minister decided to bring Thailand Elite Card to life again under a revised business plan.
Thailand Elite Card has survived during the military-backed government led by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha until now, with a gradual improvement from cost-saving measures and product redesign.
In fiscal 2021, TPC recorded a net profit of 238 million baht -- the first time it ever posted a profit -- thanks to travel curbs in Thailand during 2020-21 which helped accelerate card sales as people sought a shortcut to convenient entry.
One of the promising markets during the pandemic was Chinese customers as TPC reported a surge of 185% in 2022, accounting for 35% of the card's total membership of more than 20,000.
Q: What kind of services does Thailand Elite Card offer?
Thailand Elite Card membership fees range from 600,000 baht to 2 million baht, spanning five to 20 years.
The most popular scheme is "Elite Easy Access", with a 600,000-baht fee for a five-year membership, which comes with no extra services like golf, spa, health checkup or banking services.
Members will be granted a five-year multiple entry visa, which can also be extended if the type of card has validity of more than five years.
The length of stay in Thailand can last for a year for each entry.
The standard services for every type of membership are Elite Personal Assistants at the airport on arrival and departure and VIP lounge at the airport.
However, the number of usages will be different, depending on the type and price of membership.
The most expensive card worth 2 million baht, Elite Ultimate Privilege (EUP), typically has validity of 20 years, which members can have full services from unlimited transfers via limousine quota if they catch international flights to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and Samui, and can also use transfers for domestic flights 24 times per year.
The 2-million-baht package will also offer 24 times each for golf green fees and massage and spa packages with a limited quota, as well as one-time annual health checkup and dental checkup.
The two 1-million-baht memberships, Elite Superior Extension (ESE) and Elite Privilege Access (EPA), have validity of 20 years and 10 years, respectively.
These two cards have fewer benefits than the most expensive card, such as a limited number of limousine transfers for EPA and no transfer for ESE, and no complimentary golf green fee and massage for both, but members will be offered discounts instead.
On top of these privileges, members who applied for the card worth 1-2 million baht will be able to apply for the Flexible Plus Programme when they invest $1 million in Thailand via property, stock exchange or company or public company limited within 1 year from the date of submitting the application.
Members who meet the criteria will be eligible to request a work permit by changing the type of Privilege Entry Visa (PE) to a non-immigrant visa.
Q: Who are members of Thailand Elite Card?
According to the TAT, the parent firm of TPC, Thailand Elite Card had 20,884 members in 2022, with customers coming from 20 countries that helped generate income of 3.58 billion baht to the country.
As of 2022, the majority of active members or 35% are Chinese, followed by Japanese (8%) and US nationals (6%). Other regional markets include Southeast Asia, North Asia, Europe, North America and the Middle East.
The membership programme has been introduced to the market via appointed agents which have the potential to tap top-tier clients. At present, TPC has 24 agents who focus on the high-end Chinese market.
After receiving an application, TPC will prescreen the validity of documents and proceed to the Immigration Bureau and the Department of Consular Affairs to do background checks. If the result is cleared, TPC will submit an approval letter and the applicant has to pay the membership fee and other expenses to receive the card and use the benefits.
The entire process takes 2-3 months, depending on the nationality of the applicant, the completeness of documents and the period of consideration.
Meanwhile, members still have to report every 90 days if they have an extended stay in Thailand, but TPC can offer this service to members of a particular type.
Membership can also be revoked if they do not follow the conditions of TPC, exploiting given benefits in a corrupt manner or commit an act that contravenes public order and morality and affects TPC business.