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PlanetRx.com

The crystal ball says tourism, agriculture

 

WHAT will the face of Thailand look like five or 10 years from now? This is more than a practical question. It entails a careful rethinking, a road map and the political will to take the country to a new economic landscape of the future. The Siamese Phoenix cannot rise from the ashes by divine power alone.

Thailand is now experiencing a rebirth from the rubble of the economic disaster. Its fate will be largely determined by the current generation of political, economic and business leaders. Last week Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda, the finance minister, informally met with members of the Federation of Thai Industries, the Thai Bankers' Association and the Board of Trade of Thailand. The subject of their talk was their vision of Thailand three to 10 years from now.

They followed up with a full meeting of the Joint Public Private Sector Consultative Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, at Government House. This really marked the first time that top government officials and private sector representatives have talked about what is on the long-term horizon.

Interestingly, Tarrin gave them a piece of homework to think about. Should Thailand plunge head-long into developing agro-businesses and tourism as the flagship of the Thai economy for the future?

In the past, Thai policy-makers tended to assign more weight to financial policy development. We did not have a trade policy. Neither did we have an industrial policy. During the economic bubble, bank and finance stocks accounted for more than 60 per cent of the market capitalisation. This emphasis on finance would cost Thailand dearly after the bubble popped.

Focusing the country's economic development on agro-business and tourism is a good idea. About 60 per cent of the Thai population, who depend for their livelihood on agriculture, were left behind during the past era of economic development. It's long overdue that their plight receives proper attention.

If the country's leaders agree that stability in the Thai social fabric lies in agro-business, it has to show the way. Resources have to be channelled into developing the competitiveness of this sector. Massive investment in water resources, particularly in the Northeast, will be required. Water crises, the fight for natural resources or the destruction of the environment will become critical problems if they are not tackled now.

The same thing goes for tourism. If our leaders view that tourism will be the future of Thailand, it must position the country as the prime tourist destination of Asia, if not the world. Massive investment in infrastructure to facilitate travel throughout the country will be required. Hotels, restaurants, transport and all the related services will have to be upgraded to world-class standards to meet the expectations of the whole gamut of tourists.

At present, the Tourism Authority of Thailand gets only Bt2.8 billion as its annual budget to promote the tourism industry, which last year is anticipated to have raked in Bt300 billion in earnings for the country. Countries like Spain or France have witnessed tourist arrivals exceeding the number of their populations at times. If Thailand were to welcome 60 million tourists a year, there would be nothing wrong with that.

Promoting agro-business and tourism makes sense for a country like Thailand, which is good at almost nothing. Global competition has driven Thai industries to the edge. Without the technological base, our steel, petrochemical and labour-intensive electronic industries cannot go very far. We are also no longer in the competitive position of being able to produce textiles because of cheap imports from Indonesia. Some Thai manufacturers, in fact, have been forced to set up shop in Vietnam instead.

Given this bit of stark realism, it's time Thailand got on with what it can do best. It cannot do everything, of course, nor rely on industries that depend on foreign technology, management and capital and marketing skills.

Switzerland, for example, concentrates on a handful of industries and excels at them. It is known as the world's top destination for tourism, skiing, banking, watch-making and dairy products. Its Nestle coffee and chocolate products are world class even though Switzerland does not grow coffee or cocoa beans.

If a consensus can be reached, the government should incorporate agro-business and tourism into the Ninth National Economic and Social Development Plan (2002-2006). The problem with the past five-year national economic and social development plans was that they simply provided a broad framework, without any accompanying action plans or a timeframe to achieve the goals. This time the plan must have an active scenario and a timeframe to turn Thailand into a top agro-based country and a world-class tourism destination.

BY THANONG KHANTHONG

 

 

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