BANGKOK -- After achieving two years of record growth, Thailand's long-term residency program, the "elite visa," is now stalling.
The program faces myriad challenges: COVID-19 cases keep surging to record highs, anti-government protesters are again taking to the streets, and the visa initiative's leader has resigned.
"Thailand daily [coronavirus] cases are in five figures [per] day, this has scared some Chinese who decided to flee back to the mainland," said Zoey Chen, a consultant with Ithaihome, a Bangkok-based Chinese portal for Thai real estate transactions that also offers visa services.
The Thai government won praise for its pandemic containment efforts last year. That brought a windfall of new members to the Thailand Privilege Card, operator of the elite visas, as emigrants, especially Chinese, came to seek refuge from the virus.
These elite visas are Thailand's version of permanent residency permits. Foreigners will have to pay at least 600,000 baht ($17,947) to enroll in the program -- which allows them to stay in the kingdom for five to 20 years without having to leave its borders.
But membership for the program's new fiscal year, October 2021 to September 2022, may take a plunge after a resurgence of outbreaks since the second quarter, which also led to a strict lockdown late July.
Authorities blamed the spread on emerging clusters from entertainment venues, factories, wet markets, construction sites and prisons, as well as the more infectious delta variant which was first detected in India.
Kitti Jongsathitporn, founder of Thaisuk Business Consultant, one of the authorized agents of elite visas in Thailand, pointed to the impact on the visa scheme of Chinese staying away.
China's immigration authority on Aug. 4 said it would stop issuing documents for "nonessential and nonemergency" travel. Those going abroad for studies, jobs and business will still be able to travel, the authority said.
Mainland Chinese are the key elite visa members, accounting for a quarter of the total number. Other major nationalities are Japanese, Americans, Britons and Germans.
Kitti has run a consultancy company in Bangkok for more than 20 years, mostly focused on serving Chinese clients, including the procurement of visas and helping them set up businesses and make investments. He expects to sell just over 100 elite visas this year, half what he managed last year.
Many deep-pocketed Chinese still want to come to Thailand to invest or set up businesses amid the economic slump, but soaring COVID-19 cases and recent social unrest are putting them off, he said.
On Aug. 7, more than a thousand protesters clashed with police in riot gear armed with rubber bullets and tear gas. Protesters were demonstrating against the government's failure to handle coronavirus outbreaks, which has resulted in the prolonged economic slump.
The World Bank in July revised down Thailand's economic growth forecast for 2021 to 2.2% from 3.4% in March, citing the impact of the third wave of COVID-19 on private consumption, and the likelihood that international tourist arrivals will remain very low through 2021.
A representative of Thailand Privilege Card told Nikkei that the company had brought in 2,700 new members by May -- achieving its annual target four months before the end of its fiscal year in September. The company expects to rope in an additional 600-700 members before that period ends.
The company has yet to finalize a target number for fiscal 2022, but said the recent rise in COVID-19 cases would have an impact on all sectors in Thailand.
Amid all the problems, Somchai Soongswang, Thailand Privilege Card president, quit in June, citing personal reasons.
Thailand Privilege Card, under the Tourism Authority of Thailand, added 2,674 members for a 24.8% annual growth, in fiscal 2020. It brought in member fees of 1.6 billion baht, or nearly $48 million.
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, but that was controversial as members used those services so much that the company incurred losses.
The program was halted in 2008 and reintroduced in 2014 with various different privileges.