BANGKOK -- Thailand has welcomed a wave of Hong Kongers as members of its long-term residency program in the wake of China's freshly imposed national security law covering the territory.
"We have seen a surge in applicants from Hong Kong for the April-to-June quarter," Somchai Soongswang, president of Thailand Privilege Card, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview. The state-owned company under the Tourism Authority of Thailand issues these "elite visas."
The number of Hong Kong citizens becoming elite visa holders soared 380% on the year for the nine months through June 31, according to Thailand Privilege Card. The company declined to reveal the exact figure, but its Hong Kong membership is understood to have increased by more than 50 people for that period.
Somchai projects that the company could gain another 20 members or so for the July-September period, the final quarter of its 2020 fiscal year.
"We still see strong demand from Hong Kong at this moment," he said.
Somchai attributed the rise in applicants to China's enactment of the security law in late June, which Beijing said will tackle secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in the former British colony. China had pledged earlier this year to pass such legislation. Critics fear the law jeopardizes Hong Kong's freedoms, the territory's semi-autonomous status and its role as a global financial hub.
Thailand's total elite visa membership grew 20% during the first three quarters of fiscal 2020, rising by 1,894 people to 10,363. Mainland China accounted for 38% of these new visa holders, while Japan was second at 9%. The U.S. and the U.K. each produced 7%, company statistics show.
Somchai acknowledged that Thailand is competing for Hong Kong migrants with nations such as the U.K. and Australia but said the Southeast Asian country stands out due to its proximity, favorable weather, friendly culture and ease of setting up businesses. He also noted that elite visas could be approved in just 15 workdays if the individual's background check is cleared by relevant authorities.
London and Canberra, which have condemned China's security law, said plans are in the works to offer permanent residency to Hong Kong citizens.
Britain said up to 3 million Hong Kongers are eligible to settle in the U.K. and ultimately apply for citizenship. Australia has offered to extend visas to Hong Kong residents by five years -- providing a path to permanent residency for up to 10,000 people.
Elite visas offer foreigners residency in Thailand for five to 20 years. Everyone of any nationality is welcome to apply, but successful applicants pay a one-time upfront fee of 500,000 baht to 2 million baht ($15,900 to $63,600). The visa offers perks such as free limousine pickup at airports, VIP lanes at airport immigration and help from officers to handle the 90-day reporting to authorities, as well as free golfing and spas.
Eyeing new revenue sources for the government's coffers, Thailand rolled out elite visas in 2003, asking 1 million baht for a lifelong visa with privileges including unlimited spas or massages. Abuse of such privileges incurred losses to the company, until it decided to suspend the program in 2008.
Thailand Privilege Card revamped the program in 2013, introducing various options with different price points. Some come without free spas or golf, while the highest-end package now offers only 24 golf and spa visits each in a year.
The company aims to turn profits by 2023 from its current loss of 345 million baht, Somchai said. A surge spurred by the coronavirus pandemic prompted Thailand Privilege Card to lift its 2020 fiscal year target to 10,500 members, up by 500, but the revenue goal remains 1.5 billion baht for the period.
Somchai brushed off concerns that the program depends too heavily on mainland Chinese, calling this inevitable given the country's massive population, rising middle class and geographic proximity.
Chinese have become the top source of foreign tourists for Southeast Asia's second-largest economy, which welcomed a record 39.8 million foreign arrivals in 2019 -- equivalent to more than half of Thailand's population. But the border closure and other government efforts to stem the pandemic mean Thailand is losing out on foreign arrivals this year while dipping into a recession.
Despite Thailand winning plaudits for containing the outbreak, fears of a second wave limit border crossings, Somchai said, and this poses a challenge for the company in attracting applicants. Many new members added this year have been tourists stranded in Thailand who decided to wait out the pandemic here. For those who reside overseas and apply for elite visas now, they are not allowed in until the government approves entry.
Thailand reported a streak of 48 days with no local coronavirus transmissions Sunday. Total confirmed cases were over 3,200. The country started to reopen its borders in July to specific groups of travelers, among them medical tourists who have to undergo hospital quarantine for 14 days. Elite visa holders are not included.
But Somchai is optimistic that Thailand's elite visa program will fare well.
"Thailand has ranked as one of the top destinations for ease of starting a business. It offers lower costs of living and manages COVID-19 very well," he said, citing a recent survey by U.S. News & World Report. "This gives us a good position to attract applicants."