The re-emergence of the Thai Elite Card is indicative of Thailand’s push to become a luxury tourism destination
By Liam Aran Barnes
In The Beach, his 1996 novel, Alex Garland wrote: “Tourists went on holidays while travellers did something else. They travelled.” The cult classic, later adapted for the silver screen, was for years the blueprint and inspiration for scores of Western travellers who embarked upon the rite-of-passage trip to Thailand and its once-untouched islands, where hedonistic full-moon parties and Khao San Road guesthouses quickly became synonymous with Thailand’s overseas image as a backpacking mecca.
In the past few years, however, brand Thailand has attempted to shift its focus. The tourism authority is now eager to attract credit card-toting tourists, rather than the guidebook-bearing travellers who have frequented the Kingdom for the past two decades. The tourism and services sector currently represents 50.3% of national GDP and 44.5% of total employment, according to the finance ministry, although Thailand’s appeal has varied little in the past 20 years.
The tourism sector has embarked on a plan to move beyond the country’s diverse natural beauty, rich culture and the colourful chaos of Bangkok, in an attempt to compete with established luxury destinations such as Singapore and Hong Kong.
Dubbed the “golden year of Thai tourism”, the country welcomed a record 22.3 million visitors last year, while Bangkok surpassed London as the most visited city in the world, according to MasterCard’s Global Destination Cities Index.
In order to capitalise on this influx, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has – through various initiatives, including social media campaigns – focused on raising awareness of medical tourism, eco-tourism and especially consumer-based tourism in key destinations.
Renowned for its wealth of shopping malls, Bangkok is already favoured by regional tourists in search of the latest luxury products, although plans to further establish it as a high-end shopping hub recently faced a minor setback when the government backtracked on its proposal to reduce luxury import taxes. The decision is unlikely to have a major impact on the sector, however, with some 15 million visitors – a 20% year-on-year increase – entering Thailand through the first seven months of this year, according to government statistics.
“Our business to Thailand is up 30% across the board, and some key clients are showing increases significantly higher than that number,” said Hamish Keith, co-owner of regional luxury travel agency Exotissimo Travel Group. “It is really important for Thailand to continue positioning itself as a quality destination and to avoid the temptation to chase volume business, which inevitably focuses on one or two cities and beach destinations.”
Some established tourism fixtures are hoping to convert the existing “volume business” into a more refined form of income. Pattaya, well known for its mix of promiscuous entertainment options and teeming beaches, has attempted to remodel itself in recent years as an attractive destination for wealthy tourists.
The emergence of five-star restaurants and high-end hotel brands such as Hilton and Sheraton has done much to justify the notion that Pattaya is cleaning up its dubious image. Surprisingly, Thailand’s thriving golf scene has also become one of Pattaya’s major selling points. According to Mike Bridge, founder of Thai Golf News magazine, the area now boasts more than 20 courses – some of them designed by legendary players such as Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo – and last year the Kingdom welcomed 1.5 million golf tourists.
“Thailand is the fifth fastest-growing golfing destination in the world and, nationally, Pattaya is leading the way,” said Bridge. “Golfers are known to spend up to 120% more than the average tourist when taking a golf vacation, according to statistics provided by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.”
Golf represents just one of the tourism areas that the government plans to capitalise on through its reintroduction of the Thai Elite Card. Initially launched in 2003 by the Thaksin Shinawatra administration, the scheme aimed to promote Thailand as a luxury tourist destination. The privilege card offered members an array of benefits, including access to golfing facilities, eased visa regulations and VIP assistance at the country’s major airports, in exchange for a one-time fee of THB1 million ($31,906).
The scheme failed, falling considerably short of the one million-member target. Just 2,568 people signed up before the card’s 2008 demise at the hands of the Democrat government. After five dormant years, the scheme – which reportedly recorded losses of about THB1 billion ($31.8 million) – received a makeover and resurfaced last May.
Department director at Thailand Privilege Card Company, Kittiya Arunyadej, who has been involved in the scheme since its inception, accepted that “the programme was in a rough situation” after the change in government, but insisted it will succeed the second time around.
“The present government has recently given us approval to move on and start selling again, with a target of attracting 10,000 members [over the next decade]… from high-end tourists and businessmen to affluent foreigners,” she said. “This programme is [seen] as one of the means to promote and build up value creation in tourism, as well as generate income and foreign direct investment to the country.”
While the updated scheme now provides cardholders with a five-year multiple-entry visa and a one-year stay privilege – foreign residents are usually required to check in at immigration every 90 days – the down payment has doubled to THB2 million ($63,644), with an additional annual fee of THB21,400 ($681), and membership is restricted to 20 years. Furthermore, a few of the perks, most notably the unlimited golf and spa visits, have also been snipped, resulting in criticism from industry experts.
“The relaunch is an act of desperation,” said Bill Barnett, a regional tourism analyst and managing director of hospitality consultancy C9 Hotelworks. “I can barely count on my hands how many times they have tried to save the scheme. They [TAT] need to admit it’s a dog’s breakfast and move on.”
He added that while the TAT has evidently succeeded in promoting the Kingdom as a mass-market destination through the ‘Amazing Thailand’ campaign, it has failed to attract the expected swathes of high net-worth visitors it so desperately wants.
“TAT has used the Amazing Thailand campaign to the point where it is jumping the shark,” Barnett said. “In this day and age of promoting niche-market and specific luxury tourism, the TAT is absent.”
The authority does, however, appear to be building up a presence in China in order to capitalise on Thailand’s influx of Chinese tourists – the world’s biggest tourism spenders, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. The TAT recently opened its fifth office on the mainland to cater to the four million Chinese tourist arrivals predicted throughout this year.
The remarkable 93% year-on-year increase in Chinese tourists during the first quarter of this year has been particularly noticeable in the northern city of Chiang Mai. Much like the southern islands before it, the city has become something of a cultural pilgrimage site due to the success of a low-budget Chinese comedy titled Lost in Thailand, which is set in the north of the country.
Similar to those Western backpackers who eagerly followed in the footsteps of Garland’s protagonist, a new wave of Chinese tourists has discovered the country via pop culture. They look
set to visit Thailand en masse, complete with peace sign gestures, DSLR cameras and, to the delight of the TAT, a
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