Almost every airline and hotel chain touts a loyalty card. Taking that concept a giant step forward, Thailand's Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is offering jet-setters memberships in a card scheme whose benefits can be enjoyed across the entire country.
Last month, Thaksin welcomed 80 high-flying businessmen as inaugural members of the Thailand Elite Privilege Club. For a one-off lifetime fee of $25,000, the millionaires were each presented with a Thailand Elite card entitling them to discounts on Thai Airways and at Thailand's best hotels, free golf at a slew of courses, free spa treatments, a fast track through customs, free limousine transfers and a 24-hour concierge service. And why do millionaires need discounts? "We all want a bargain," Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire, said before doling out the black-and-gold plastic.
"I'm not aware of any other country ever having a club like this," said Peter M. Kennedy, chairman of investment bank Domonick Company AG. While he doubted he'll ever visit enough golf clubs or spas to recoup his investment, he said he bought the card "to show my support for Thailand."
How much more support is out there for the scheme, dreamed up personally by Thaksin, remains to be seen. Thaksin has appointed a corps of private sales agents and told Thai embassy officials to hawk the cards to CEOs and celebrities around the world. But few travel-industry analysts believe he can achieve his goal of selling 1 million cards in the next 10 years. The program is also not without controversy. A key privilege for cardholders is the opportunity to "buy" residential land in Thailand (it will apparently be held in the name of the Thailand Privilege Co., set up to run the scheme, as foreigners are not allowed to own land in their own right).
"The ability to buy land was the reason I bought the card," says Rasmus Lisbjerg, a Danish businessman. Land ownership is, however, a sensitive issue. Thaksin is popular with the locals because he has promised to eradicate poverty in six years. But when millions of indebted, landless Thai farmers can't afford a rice paddy of their own, opponents of the scheme will dislike the symbolism of land being sold to foreign millionaires for luxury villas.