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Economy

Thailand hikes price of 5-year visa as foreigners seek COVID haven

Residency program aims for profit in 2 years on surge of Chinese applicants

A 20% price hike on the popular visa is set to go into effect in January. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

BANGKOK -- Thailand plans to raise the price of its bestselling five-year residency permit by 20% in January, after the program dubbed "elite" visas drew record new memberships this year as people sought to stay in the largely coronavirus-free country.

Starting Jan. 1, the Easy Access -- one of the nine elite-visa packages -- will be offered for 600,000 baht ($19,850), up from the current 500,000 baht, according to Thailand Privilege Card, the operator of the elite visas.

Thailand Privilege Card, a company under the Tourism Authority of Thailand, added 2,674 members during its fiscal 2020 ended in September, a 24.8% increase. This brought in fees of 1.6 billion baht, or nearly $53 million. Over 60% of the new members were Easy Access holders.

Easy Access enjoyed great demand this year, for its cheaper price and the privilege of staying in Thailand for an uninterrupted five years. Buyers can renew or upgrade to longer-term visas when their five years are up, said Bobby He, a Bangkok-based agent selling elite visas to Chinese.

Thailand Privilege Card had a cumulative loss of 555 million baht as of fiscal 2019. The price increase for the cash cow package comes as the company aims to reach a profit within two years.

The company attributed the price hike to "higher operating costs," without elaboration. It said prices of the other types of elite visas will not change.

"It's no surprise that the authorities want to raise the price of Easy Access," said He, a Chinese native who holds a 20-year, 1 million baht elite visa.

Company President Somchai Soongswang attributed the record membership to Thailand's containment of COVID-19. He told Nikkei Asia that many tourists stuck in Thailand amid closed borders wanted to stay longer in the country, and those abroad wished to come here for a "pandemic-free" living environment.

The Southeast Asian country has logged slightly over 4,000 COVID-19 cases, compared with over 65,500 in neighboring Malaysia and 58,000 in Singapore.

As of Sept. 30, there were more than 11,100 elite visa members in total. The majority were mainland Chinese, Japanese, South Koreans, Britons and Americans.

The company aims to attract at least 2,700 new members for fiscal 2021, another record if achieved, according to people familiar with the plans.

Toward that end, Thailand Privilege Card is set to work with local developers to unveil its 10th elite visa package, the "Flexible One," to target deep-pocketed condo buyers by the first quarter of 2021.

Individuals who buy one or several units worth 10 million baht are expected to get a five-year residency visa for free, or at a discount. This move comes as Thailand's property market has slid into a black hole amid sluggish spending.

As of the first week of November, Thai authorities had given approval for nearly 1,000 elite visa holders abroad to enter the country. About 200 have since arrived. Somchai said 60% of applicants came from abroad in September, doubling from March, showing their confidence in Thailand's ability to control COVID-19.

Elite visas were rolled out in 2003 to target high net worth individuals who wanted to stay in the country "for life" by paying a one-time fee of 1 million baht. It came with privileges such as unlimited access to golf courses and high-end spas, leading to excessive use that incurred losses to the company.

The program was halted in 2008 and reintroduced in 2014 with various visa packages at different price points. The nine current packages offer residency of five, 10 or 20 years. Prices range from 500,000 baht to 2 million baht.

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