If the government hopes to entice wealthy expats and skilled professionals into making Thailand their second home, it must first improve the treatment of the millions of foreigners already living in the country.
If the state is unable to do so, what kind of message does that send to targeted rich foreigners that the government hopes to attract?
News of the plan to invite wealthy foreigners comes as the government attempts to revive the economy. They are one of four groups of foreigners the government hopes will help boost Thailand's financial standing.
It is not the first time the government has offered elite visas to wealthy foreign retirees. The outcome has been encouraging. Applications among affluent retirees jumped more than 30% between 2016 and 2019, showing signs that the drive worked for a time.
In 2018, Thailand issued nearly 80,000 retirement visas, 30% up from 2014. It cited research by Kasikorn Bank that estimated that in 2016, there were 68,300 foreigners over 50 years-old holding long-term visas, a 9% increase over the previous two years.
Today, since Covid-19 infection rates might have peaked last month, the Prayut Chan-o-cha administration is gearing up for the country's planned year-end reopening and resuscitating the gravely ailing tourism industry.
On Tuesday, government spokesman Thanakorn Wangboonkongchana revealed another scheme to help boost the pandemic-hit economy: a cabinet-approved plan to offer foreigners 10-year-long visas under an economic stimulus and investment promotion package.
The government aims to attract more than a million qualified foreign nationals over the next five years, beginning next year, he said.
Qualified foreigners are to be offered various benefits, including automatic work permits, the same income tax rates as Thai citizens, tax exemptions for income earned abroad and ownership of properties and land.
However, they must make certain investments and professional contributions to the country. So, unless you are a "highly-skilled professional from overseas" beneficial to targeted industries, you are expected to invest at least 16.5 million baht in government bonds or real estate.
Whether this offer is enough to tempt wealthy investors into living in Thailand remains to be seen. Aside from a list of what the government wants in return for the long-term visas, there are not enough details to say whether the plan will succeed.
However, there are already tell-tale signs that the government is neglecting the foreigners already here and contributing to the country's economy.
Members of Thailand's foreign community have expressed their disappointment over the plan. Some argue the move is a slap in the face -- rightfully so.
The government has been complacent in dealing with immigration issues. The immigration system has been tightened for foreigners in recent years, making staying in the country more difficult. Foreigners are required to check in with officials every 90 days to ensure no one overstays -- a move that makes no sense to most people because that is the purpose of having visa renewals.
Aside from unnecessary restrictions, there are also reports of corruption in the immigration system. Many foreigners said they had issues renewing their annual visas, saying bribes had to be paid to officials. And these are just some of the issues -- other foreigners have things much worse.
The word "expatriate" covers every foreigner working in the country -- not just educated Westerners. According to a study by Mahidol University, there were about 2.5 million foreign residents in the country in 2010, including about 1.8 million people from neighbouring countries and about 27,000 Westerners. The International Labour Organization said recently that about 700,000 foreign workers in Thailand, mostly in the tourism, service and construction industries, lost their jobs due to curbs the government put in place to combat coronavirus last year.
The contributions of these expats -- often referred to as "migrant workers" -- are rarely recognised. Many aren't treated as well as other foreigners perhaps due to their low-income status. While wealthy expats can afford to stay in up-scale condominiums and townhouses, foreign construction workers, maids and day labourers have less than ideal living conditions. Amid the pandemic, some foreign construction workers were even confined to their quarters due to infection fears.
The government should have considered these accounts and taken steps to improve the immigration process. There is so much to be done, it is doubtful the government can address all immigration issues before next year. The bottom line is clear: many foreigners -- regardless of their occupation -- feel like they are being left behind.