Thailand has kicked off a program to lure the world's rich and famous to the country, boosting its tourism industry. For $25,000, foreign politicians, tycoons and movie stars get a raft of benefits. But critics fear the government may be selling the country short.
The Elite Card program in Thailand offers privileged access to clubs, medical clinics, resorts and airlines, even exclusive real estate investment opportunities usually only offered to Thai citizens. And Elite Card holders will zip through customs and immigration formalities as they go in and out of the kingdom.
Thailand is the first country to offer such a high-dollar travel access program. The government says it already has sold about 200 Elite Cards, and it has given away dozens to celebrities and millionaires to raise the program's international profile.
The program is meant to add to the $8 billion tourism generates in Thailand each year. The government hopes to boost tourism revenue by at least $2.5 billion by the end 2004 with the sale of at least 100,000 cards.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra says the card is aimed at building on Thailand's success as a tourist destination by encouraging wealthy travelers to come again and again.
"We are one of the most successful countries for tourism. So we need to have regular [...] tourists," he said. "So we provide a special member card to those who want to be a frequent traveler, a frequent visitor to Thailand."
Card-holders include politicians and diplomats as well as business executives from Asia, the United States and Europe. Among the latest recipients were United Nations Children's Fund volunteers such as singer Harry Belafonte and actors Peter Ustinov and Halle Berry.
"The whole thing of the program is not only the membership fee - we already study the behavior and lifestyle of the people who are buying this card, who will be our elite members, always be the people spending their money in the country a lot," explains Prisit Kaenchan, who runs the Elite Card program.
Mr. Prisit's studies show that each cardholder is could spend up to $125,000 in Thailand over the next decade.
The promotion also highlights a shift in Thailand's tourism policy. Its tropical beaches, lush jungles, folk culture and low prices have long made the country a backpackers' haven, drawing millions of low-budget travelers. In recent years, however, the government has tried to lure wealthier tourists.
It seems to be working. Tourism Authority of Thailand data show that the professionals and managers accounted for almost 30 percent of the five million tourist arrivals in the first half of this year.
John Koldowski, a director with the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), says the Elite Card program reflects a trend away from mass tourism.
"The interesting thing from my perspective is the shift in thinking from mass tourism, mass tourism, mass tourism, 'let's get more, more, more' down to a 'let's be careful with what we've got, let's start to optimize and maximize the returns to the destination and the citizens,'" he said.
Mr. Koldowski expects other countries to watch the progress of the Elite Card program and possibly follow with their own efforts to lure the wealthy.
But not everyone likes the program. Some Thais see it as creating a special class of travelers with access to privileges many can only envy.
Sophon Ongkara, a commentator with The Nation newspaper, fears the real earnings from the program will be concentrated in just a few hands.
"I think someone is making a lot of money by selling Thailand short, treating Thailand just like a cocktail lounge, or night club, or sports club or golf club - raising funds for membership but at the expense of the country as a whole," he said.
Despite such criticism, sales agents say they are confident they will sell 200,000 Elite Cards over the next year.