With Thailand emerging as one of the safest places on the planet during the coronavirus pandemic, wealthy Chinese increasingly are applying to leave their homeland and resettle in the Land of Smiles.

Thailand Privilege Card, the company that runs the Thailand Elite Card program, said applications from China are surging, with millionaires and even billionaires looking for 20-year visas to live in Thailand.

Bobby He, an Elite Card agent in Bangkok, said interest in the Elite Card began in February as China went into lockdown as Covid-19 ravaged Wuhan. Applications surged again in recent weeks as the coronavirus resurfaced in Beijing, he said.

The strange thing? Most of the applicants have never even been to Thailand, He said.

Even as Beijing residents in high-risk neighborhoods are being confined to their homes, Thailand is preparing to lift the last of its lockdown measures July 1, resuming normalcy as much as is possible while still social-distancing.

Rich Chinese already comprise 20 percent of all the Elite Card’s 9,578 members, as of Feb. 29. Britons accounted for 6 percent while Japanese and Americans each represented 5 percent of membership, which has risen 47 percent since the end of 2018.

Thailand Elite Card

Elite visas debuted in 2003 to attract high-wealth visitors with promises of visas lasting five to 20 years. The only obstacle to gaining the long-term visas is money, as long as the applicant is not banned from the kingdom for legal offenses here or abroad.

To enroll, applicants pay a down-payment of 500,000-2 million baht, in line with similar investment programs in Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries. In addition to hassle-free immigration, Elite Card holders get free limousine pickup at airports, VIP lanes at airport immigration, immigration staff assistance, free golf trips and spa use.

Despite the premium perks, however, Elite Card holders have been locked out of Thailand during the country’s lockdown, unable to utilize repatriation flights for Thais stranded abroad. To get back in, the rich and powerful must get in line with married expats and work permit holders, who will start to be allowed back in to the country in July.

But despite the lockout, prominent Chinese businesspeople are looking at Thailand as an Oasis from China’s never-ending string of virus outbreaks and disasters, from SARS in 2003 to the Sichuan earthquake to Covid-19. Chinese still in the country are in no hurry to leave.

The strange thing? Most of the applicants have never even been to Thailand.

The Elite Card program’s rapid growth is a recent phenomenon, though. Offering only the 2-million-baht package, Elite Card found few takers and lost so much money in its first six years the Thai government killed it in 2009. It was revamped and revived after the military coup in 2014.

Chinese are not the only ones looking for a safe haven from the coronavirus too. Elite Card executives said Americans, Brits and Australians trapped in Thailand have decided to stay by buying a long-term Elite visa.

Not wanting to let a good thing end, Elite Card plans to introduce new packages in October that include coronavirus tests and insurance with hopes of adding another 2,500 members by year-end.