Thailand chases Hong Kong talent, capital–and 'digital nomads'

July 05, 2022 09:39
Photo: Reuters

During this rush of emigration, many countries are seeking Hong Kong’s talent and capital – and Thailand is one of them.

Its cabinet has approved a new visa scheme to take effect from September 1 this year – the Long-Term Resident (LTR) visa to be offered to four kinds of foreign nationals – wealthy global citizens, wealthy pensioners, work-from-Thailand professionals and highly skilled professionals.

“The internet in Bangkok and many big cities is very fast,” said Tourism Minister Phiphat Ratchakitprakarn. “Thailand offers service and atmosphere and a relatively low cost of living. We do not tax digital nomads. Their income is generated overseas.”

These are people who work remotely from their computers and can therefore live anywhere. Their criteria for deciding where to live are different to those who must go regularly to an office, school, factory or institution and are therefore tied to a single location.

For Hong Kong people, the favoured destinations for emigration are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom. But many find aspects of living in these countries unattractive – climate, cuisine, dominant Anglo-Saxon culture and being permanently members of a minority.

Countries in Southeast Asia, and Taiwan, offer a lifestyle, cuisine, climate and racial composition closer to those in Hong Kong, as well as the ease of returning here to see family and friends. As ties between Beijing and Taipei deteriorate, so Taiwan increasingly restricts applicants from Hong Kong, especially those born in or having links with the mainland.

“Of the countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand is the most welcoming to foreigners,” said Jason Yu Wai-lung, founder of Smart2Go, a company that advises Hong Kong where to emigrate.

“This is a long-term policy that has been in place for many years. The government wants to attract three million foreign residents,” he said.

Thailand has long been popular with Western retirees, who enjoy the warm climate, low cost of living, availability of domestic help, widespread use of English in Bangkok and other large cities and high quality of private medical care. There are large and well-established communities of foreigners which people can join.

One of the main reasons for the launch of the LRT visa is the Covid-19 epidemic, which decimated Thailand’s booming tourist industry and large number of digital nomads. Before the pandemic, the country attracted 40 million visitors a year, spending more than US$55 billion, In 2021, the number fell to only 400,000, a drop of 99 per cent from the 2019 level.

Before Covid-19, the city of Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand was one of the most popular digital nomad capitals of the world. It is the country’s second largest city, with 1.2 million people, situated in a mountainous area in the north.

It has an international airport with connections all over Asia, a climate milder than that of Bangkok, an old city, fast internet, diverse cuisine and many cafes and co-working spaces. A digital nomad can live there for less than US$1,000 a month. They used a 60-day tourist visa which they could extend for 30 days, then fly to a neighbouring country, usually Malaysia, and then apply for another visa for 90 days.

But the pandemic and the quarantine rules in Thailand and other countries made this style of life impossible. The new LRT visa scheme aims to stimulate economic growth by making it easier and less bureaucratic for foreigners to settle there.

For “Work-from-Thailand” professionals, the conditions are that remote workers are employed by “well-established” foreign companies or have a personal income of not less than US$80,000 a year for the previous two years. They must have a health insurance policy with at least US$50,000 coverage, social security benefits insuring treatment in Thailand or a deposit of not less than US$100,000.

David Leung, an emigration consultant in Hong Kong, said that migrants to Thailand had to use the private medical system and work for foreign companies in the country or overseas.

“It offers excellent medical care, such as the Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok. Many of its staff were trained overseas and speak English. Interpretation in Mandarin is also available. Medical tourism is well developed in Thailand. There are two dozen schools that offer the International Baccalauraute curriculum,” he said.

“There is already a community of Hong Kong migrants. Some are retirees and others are professionals who live in Bangkok or other large cities. In the current atmosphere, I expect more to go,” he said.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.