WHY IS THAILAND FAILING TO LURE WEALTHY EXPATS IN GREATER NUMBERS? – Thailand has so much potential as a South East Asia destination for wealthy expats and yet despite a wonderful climate it continuously fails to attract high net worth individuals to set up residency in the country.
Thailand has a number of unique selling features, such as great weather and easy access to other international destinations such as Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the Middle East; so why are so many wealthy individuals shunning Thailand as a potential base in South East Asia?
In 2005 the Thai Government introduced a ‘Thai Elite Card’ that afforded anyone paying 1.5 million Thai Baht (approx US$45,000), special privileges with immigration and a number of other benefits including discounts with Spas, Hotels and Golf Courses.
The Thai Elite Card failed spectacularly to attract the high net worth individuals its marketing targeted and with huge losses it was abandoned a few years later.
Not to be deterred, the Thai Government has recently announced its resurrection at 2 million Thai Baht (approx US$60,000) with none of the discounts. This has left many Thai expat discussion boards asking whether the Thai Government has simply lost the plot or if they honestly believe Westerners would be gullible enough to be lured into what is little more than a scam.
Thailand has a notoriously laborious immigration process when it comes to expats. Generally, regardless of the visa obtained, foreign residents are only permitted a maximum stay of one year. Once obtaining the annual visa the foreign resident is required to report to the Immigration Authorities once every 90 days to state their whereabouts.
Expats often feel discriminated against and many feel the process is not only humiliating it is also a complete and utter waste of time with the only premises of inconveniencing the expat.
But would that be enough to deter high net worth individuals? Let’s be fair there are always different sets of rules for those who are extremely wealthy but Thailand is missing out on vast foreign capital inflow due to a number of other regulation and ideologies that is almost certainly stifling the potential investment flowing into the country.
On a recent trip to the island of Phuket these problems became more apparent and are certainly a contributing factor to the loss of income.
Phuket is an island in the South of Thailand and nestles on the Andaman Sea. It is, from a first glance, a truly beautiful place but scratch beneath the surface and the revelations as to why Phuket is losing tourism and deterring wealthy foreigners from setting up home becomes apparent.
First impressions last and upon arriving at Phuket International Airport (PIA) it is almost tempting to walk through customs, get on your mobile phone and book the next outward bound flight available.
I have travelled extensively in my years and I have never seen such rudeness as that received from a Thai Immigration Official. Thailand is supposed to be the ‘Land of Smiles’ but if the staff at PIA are representatives of the nation then Thailand is one miserable place with a country full of very unhappy citizens.
It wasn’t just the fact that I didn’t get a smile but rather that I was barely spoken to and after receiving my 30 day tourist stamp my passport was all but thrown at me. As I proceeded to customs I examined my visa stamp and decided that 30 days in this place could well be 30 days too long.
Upon going through an equally unhappy bunch at customs I proceeded through the arrivals hall and was confronted by a barrage of marauding taxi drivers. I had been forewarned to book a hotel and arrange for a pickup so as to avoid being scammed by the taxi drivers and considering what I witnessed I was grateful for the advice and that I had taken it.
The drive to the hotel was a mixture of horror and disbelief. I’ve seen some sights in my time but I didn’t expect to see a so-called ‘International Holiday Destination’ looking quiet like the inside of a Karachi toilet.
The overhead power lines alone was enough to put me off and considering the stories I had heard regarding tourists being electrocuted it came as little surprise considering the state of the electricity supply.
Ugly billboards littered the highway which was in itself little more than a garbage filled racing track for every moron with an SUV. The worst perpetrators to what can be best described as ‘suicidal driving’ were the taxis and minibuses and as they raced passed I cringed at the thought of fear the passengers within must be experiencing.
It took a little under an hour to reach the hotel and I was already thinking about booking a trip out. How the Thai Authorities can laud Phuket as a tropical destination is simply beyond my scope of creative imagination. I could only conclude at this time that the Thais were either completely blind or they simply didn’t know any better.
The hotel was comfortable enough and I even managed to get the famous ‘Thai Smile’ from the receptionist; however I quickly discovered that the smile was often to hide their inadequate command of the English language. Again the idea of Phuket being an international holiday destination was looking more like a farce as the minutes ticked by.
It would have been easy to shut my mind to the possibility of living here as an expat resident but I decided that these first short hours were simply not enough to get a bigger picture and besides I still had to find out other reasons why Thailand wasn’t attracting more wealthy people to visit and indeed live here.
In the morning I took a stroll through what can only be described as one of the worst experiences of my life. I was directed to walk through Soi Bangla and then onto the beach. With a full stomach from breakfast it took me all my willpower not to lose the contents.
The overwhelming stench of human waste could have felled an elephant and I failed to see how anyone could or would want to spend any time here.
The fact that there were basically open sewers intrigued me to investigate where all the waste was going. It wasn’t long before I discovered the disturbing truth and that was it was all being pumped into the sea; where the holiday makers frolicked in the water.
As I stood on the sands of Patong beach I was horrified at the idea that taking a dip was tantamount to swimming in raw human sewage and decided it was not a health risk I was prepared to take.
I needed information and therefore went hunting in some of the bars. It didn’t take me long before I hooked up with a number of expats who regaled me with stories on life on Phuket.
It appears the whole system is corrupt to the core, from its Governor to the Police to wealthy faceless puppet masters who control every aspect of tourism and the money it generates.
I was warned to avoid Tuk Tuks and Jet Skis as these were some of the worst perpetrators of criminal corruption on the island and any such contact would inevitably result in being scammed by the individuals and the police.
I spent the day roaming the thousands of bars looking for information and an insight to expat living and one thing emerged. Most of the expats living here were doing so on a meager pension and were here primarily for the easy sex. It is little wonder why, after what I witnessed during the twilight hours, that Thailand has picked up the unenviable reputation as being the Whore House of Asia.
My investigations were not over and surely there must be plenty of wealthy people living on Phuket. After moving to a more affluent area, Surin and Bang Toa, although even with the amount of money in this place it still resembles little more than a garbage dump with electrical cabling hanging precariously over head.
I found a nice up market restaurant and bar and decided this could be the place to meet some of the more ‘well-off’ folks. There were quite a few but I quickly discovered many of them didn’t own a property and didn’t live here full time. Most worked abroad in places like Singapore and used Thailand as a weekend retreat.
It became quickly apparent why many wealthy people avoid setting up home here as the Thai Property laws are bordering on xenophobic paranoia. It is, as I discovered, illegal for a foreigner to own land; although they are permitted to own the building.
Many of whom I spoke to felt that the Thais are simply too nationalistic and view the concept of foreigners ownership of land as taking away their national identity. Often expats have been persuaded to buy property, including the land, through a Thai Nominee Company, and while this appears widespread it is in fact illegal.
Over a four day period, yes that’s all I managed to last before the yearning of civilization beckoned me, I unearthed a number of reasons why Thailand is failing to attract wealthy Westerners and why their tourism industry is being bludgeoned to death.
Many of the issues come down to corruption and the unwillingness of the Thais to change and accept foreigners. Thais on the whole don’t like foreigners or the influences they bring.
Phuket is quite frankly an environmental catastrophe and this has been perpetrated by the greedy and corrupt officials who run the island with almost a ‘mafia’ style form of governance.
There are simply too many barriers for the wealthy to consider moving here including that it’s filthy with garbage everywhere, its environmentally ruined, foreigners are not wanted, property prices have no marketable structure, property cannot be owned, traffic is abhorrent and the beaches are little more than an open sewer for all the human waste that the hotels, bars and restaurant create.
I have to say that when leaving the island there was a pang of sadness, not to the fact that I was leaving, far from it as I was glad to be leaving such a place, my pang of sadness was for an island that could have been truly spectacular and where the world’s rich and even super rich would have wanted to set up permanent residence if not for the Thais inability to control their own greed.
Thailand, especially Phuket, is never going to attract wealthy tourists or expats in any discernible numbers and those who do visit are unlikely ever to return.
Regardless of my views there are those I spoke to who loved it there; but in all honesty living in a bar with Thai prostitutes telling you how handsome you are 24/7 is not my idea of paradise and I doubt it fits into the requirements of those who the Thais covet the most – high net worth individuals.
Have you been to Thailand, what are your views? Please leave your comments below.