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Politics

Thailand considers express visa issuance to lure foreign business

Junta to amend law to allow greater inflow of talent from overseas

Laem Chabang Port in the Eastern Economic Corridor, a special economic zone the government has established for the development of high-tech industries. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

BANGKOK -- The Thai government is planning to amend its foreign business law to boost inbound investment, as it tries to stimulate economic growth to catch up with its neighbors.

The country's junta is considering measures it hopes will draw foreign businesses and investments to its Eastern Economic Corridor, the much-flagged special economic zone aimed at developing high-tech industries such as biochemicals, petrochemicals, robotics, aviation and electric vehicles. 

The measures under consideration include a "smart visa" program which would give express visa issuance to selected applicants that the government sees as vital to economic development, sources said. It aims to attract science and technology experts, senior executives, investors and startup business talent. 

The government has sent clear signals to foreign businesses that it is willing to facilitate investments. "If there are any obstacles that disrupt investment, we will solve it, particularly laws and regulations," Deputy Prime Minister Somkid Jatusripitak said at an event in Bangkok early this month. 

In a bid to attract foreign investment, Thailand has implemented tax breaks, 99-year land leases and speedy investment approvals among other measures.

Since the government launched the EEC in 2017, the Board of Investment has approved 259 new investment projects worth a total of 310 billion baht ($9.6 billion). But the government believes that there is potential for more investment once existing laws are amended.

Foreign businesses say the outdated Foreign Business Act of 1999 hinders their investment in several sectors such as logistics and tourism. The law was originally designed to protect domestic business. It prohibits foreign entities from taking a majority share of Thai company. 

"The law should be more open and more flexible to allow foreigners to operate business more smoothly," said Itsakul Unahakate of Thammasat University's Faculty of Economics.

The Thai Chamber of Commerce is studying how to amend the law to make investment easier, said its Chairman Kalin Sarasin.

Other chambers of commerce also see the need for change in the foreign business law. "There are some issues in the foreign business act that should be amended in order to make Thailand a competitive place to invest," said Stanley Kang, chairman of the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce in Thailand. "The law has been imposed for a long time and I think it is the time to make it easier to do business in Thailand."

The joint chambers are lobbying hard for foreign companies to bring in their own experts to work in Thailand. Last year, Apple struggled to bring in foreign staff for its first store in Thailand as its visa applications were rejected. 

The foreign chambers are expected to finalize the review of the law and propose it to the government by the end of May, according to Kang. They are also in talks with the Thai chamber for other possible amendments.

A senior official at the Thai Commerce Ministry, which drafts the law, said the ministry could set up a special committee of representatives from related parties to see if the current visa rules could be relaxed. But the official also said that it was unclear how long the amendments would take.

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