On the very last enrolment day, August 15, that holders of the five year Elite ‘easy access’ five year visas had been instructed to submit an application for a 15 years upgrade to 20 years in total, they have received an email from Thailand Privilege Card Company informing them the new rule has suddenly and abruptly been scrapped. They can, after all, update their five year visa just three months or more before their personal expiry date. Just like before. But it is still ambiguous whether the transfer fees will remain the same in the future as they are now.
The cancellation of the order, which had originally been announced on August 1, began a two weeks flurry of confusion for holders of the five year option within the Elite program of visa choices. The most likely reason for the cancellation is legal advice to top Elite managements that they could face action in the courts from some visa holders arguing that their terms and conditions had been arbitrarily altered and with hardly any notice. There are currently 25,000-30,000 Elite members under all programs with the most popular option being ‘easy access’ or five years multiple entry.
As regards new and fresh Elite applications, paperwork must be submitted by September 15 to qualify for any Elite visa plan under the old regulations. The current programs will then be scrapped for new enrolments and a fresh tariff (details not yet known) will take effect at the beginning of October. It is widely assumed that Elite visas, which allow for stays between five and 20 years, with or without family members, will then be fewer in number and more expensive to buy. Social media rumors suggest that the five year option will jump from 600,000 baht to one million plus and the cheapest 20 years visa from 1 million baht to 5 million.
Although Elite membership does not offer Thai citizenship, a second passport or even permanent residency, it does carry perks such as fast-track immigration, free medical checkups and substantial discounts on hotel bookings, golf courses, retail outlets and the like. It is widely assumed that Elite will restrict the most generous perks to those who buy the most visa expensive options and/or visit Thailand most frequently. That model would be based on the familiar air miles strategy offered by airlines: the more you fly and the more you pay for your seat, the more privileges you can have.
The elephant in the room is the future of all Thai visa programs and not just Elite options. A deputy national police chief stated recently that some annual, renewable visas are too cheap whilst criticizing corrupt practices in the issue of retirement, study and voluntary visas. Meanwhile, the issue of some foreigners not having medical cover and being unable to pay their hospital bills is still a hot potato in political circles. The last major overhaul of Thailand’s visa regulations and fees was almost 20 years ago. On the other hand, Thailand must aspire to be competitive with other south east Asian countries who are just as keen to increase tourist and expat numbers. Thailand, in its hunt for high tourist spenders and wealthy expats, must be careful not to throw the babies out with the bath water.