Thailand Wants Bill. Tiger, too. Read this article at Chief Executive

July 2004, Vol. 200

THAILAND, long favored by scruffy backpackers and pot-bellied sex adventurers, is embarking on an image enhancement. The country is trying to draw higher- quality tourists of the CEO type by offering a special program: For $25,000, you get a lifetime Thailand Elite membership card that entitles you to be treated “like you are a guest of the country” every time you travel to Thailand.

Here are just a few of the privileges that membership provides: a first-class ticket to Bangkok from wherever you live; a motorized cart and driver to whisk you from the gate and through your own immigration line; limo transfers; access to airport VIP lounges; free greens fees at dozens of private golf courses; free 90-minute daily Thai massages during your stay; the ability to purchase a home in Thailand (usually forbidden to foreigners); and a 24-hour call center to take care of restaurant reservations and other needs. “We do everything for you,” a government marketing executive in Bangkok says. “You don't have to do anything.”

The government had expected at least 100,000 well-heeled takers, but in the six months since the program launched, only about 400 folks have signed up. So the government, through the Tourism Authority of Thailand, is next planning to issue a Super Elite Card, by invitation only, offering even more privileges. Bill Gates, because of his wealth, and Tiger Woods, owing to his Thai heritage, are to be among those invited.

So far, there are few American participants, however, due to a lackluster marketing campaign in the U.S. The 400 or so members who have signed up already are primarily from elsewhere in Asia, particularly China, as well as the Middle East.

But the Elite program won't let in just anybody. A screening process requires the applicant not to have been declared bankrupt (no Donald Trumps, please), or mentally incompetent (we won't mention any names). But being convicted of a crime isn't grounds for disqualification, apparently. Applicants merely cannot have been “sentenced to a term of imprisonment for more than six months.” So can Martha Stewart sign up? We'll have to wait and see.

-- Sheridan Prasso