Long a haven for scruffy backpackers seeking a beach paradise on the cheap, Thailand is shifting its focus to a more rarefied breed: luxury tourists.
The Thai government's sales pitch is simple. Pay $25,000 now for a lifetime of fawning service and members-only privileges. It's an offer that promoters say has lured more than 100 takers since its launch last month, mostly jet-setting executives based in Asia, along with some Americans, Europeans, and Australians.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the mastermind behind the plan, recently presented the first batch of VIP tourists with their gold-and-black "Thailand Elite" cards and a ceremonial palm-leaf fan associated with Thai nobility. He welcomed them to an "extraordinary club" called the Kingdom of Thailand.
Promoters say that around half of the initial members are from China, including top executives at large state-owned companies that are increasingly flexing their muscles in Thailand and across resource-rich Southeast Asia. This mirrors a broader upsurge in overseas travel by China's growing middle class that until recently rarely traveled outside their country because of visa restrictions and limited leisure time.
Busloads of Chinese tourists are now a fixture at resorts in Thailand, fueling a demand for Thai-Mandarin interpreters. Analysts say Chinese travelers, along with Indians, have become the biggest prize for Southeast Asia at a time when Americans increasingly are staying home.
"These are the two great untapped markets. Thailand is a very diverse destination and it offers a mixture of Chinese and Indian cultures," said Imtiaz Mongkol, a travel consultant.
Other countries in the region appear to be taking note of Thailand's tactics. Singapore is offering fast-track visas to frequent fliers and their families on Air China and plans to expand the program to other airlines in China, whose footloose tourists are becoming familiar visitors to Southeast Asia. It predicts a modest 2,000 extra visitors from the offer.
But Thailand, which pulled in nearly 10 million tourists this year, making it the top regional vacation spot, is aiming higher. The state tourist body, which is overseeing the promotion, is hoping to sign up at least 10,000 wealthy visitors to the program by the end of next year, though Mr. Shinawatra, himself a self-made millionaire, has predicted 200,000 could eventually join.
The offer includes a five-year, multiple-entry visa, unlimited airport limousine transfers, free access to spas and golf clubs, annual medical check-ups, and a fast track at immigration. "Thailand Elite" members are also extended the right to buy up to 10 acres of land, a privilege normally reserved for Thai citizens. Applicants will be screened and checked against international police wanted lists.
"It's for people who understand the value of Thailand ... and want to be treated specially," said Leslie Kierig, an American consultant on the project. "These people have worked hard for their money and feel they deserve some of these special privileges."
Promoters of the VIP plan admit that snob value is part of the appeal when it comes to Asian travelers with a penchant for members-only clubs and public displays of wealth. The sales brochure holds out the tantalizing prospect of rubbing shoulders with "celebrities from around the world" that are being targeted as potential VIPs.
Paisit Kaenchan, who runs the company in charge of marketing the "Thailand Elite" card, makes no apologies for chasing super-rich vacationers. "In the old days, we opened our country to almost everyone. Right now we have to concentrate on people who spend more money," he told reporters at last month's launch.
Tourism is already a major earner for Thailand and contributes more than 6 percent of economic output. Officials are aiming to pull in $12 billion from tourism next year, excluding sales of "Thailand Elite" cards. That estimate is underpinned by a bumper crop of Chinese visitors whose numbers are forecast to jump by 25 percent to 1 million.
While terrorism has dealt a heavy blow to tourism in Indonesia, where more than 200 people died last year in two nightclub bombings carried out by Islamic militants on Bali island, Thailand remains a safe destination in the eyes of foreign vacationers.
Joe Cummings, author of the bestselling Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, says the push for well-heeled visitors isn't a big shift for Thailand, which has been moving steadily up-market over the past two decades. It's a familiar pattern in international tourism: A trail blazed by adventurous travelers becomes a mainstream destination, leaving diehard backpackers shaking their heads and moving on to the next unspoiled paradise.
But Mr. Cummings, who has advised the Thai government on tourist policy, says it's wrong to assume that budget travelers are all penny-pinching loafers. "Studies show that per person expenditure is higher among so-called backpackers than for any other sector of tourists," he says.