Unique opportunities in Thailand for UK business
It’s undeniably true that many South-East Asian countries were quick off the mark when Covid-19 struck. Most successful among them was Thailand, which counts only 58 deaths from coronavirus since the threat was identified on 13 January this year. The Thai Ambassador to London, HE Pisanu Suvanajata, is quietly proud of this achievement and is hoping that his country’s cautious approach to the ongoing situation will enable Thailand to open up successfully when the timing is right.
His Excellency has been in position since 2016, arriving in the UK from his previous posting as Ambassador in Yangon, the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (2012-16). Prior to this, he was Consul-General in Guangzhou, the People’s Republic of China. A safe pair of hands, he is a keen anglophile and is confident that the similarities between the Thai and British people will lead to successful business partnerships going forward.
Before Covid-19 there were more than one million British visitors to Thailand each year. In return, Thai visitors to the UK numbered around 200,000. These numbers have obviously fallen through the floor since Thailand’s borders were closed, and even though there have only been 3,200 cases of coronavirus, Thailand is on the UK quarantine list, much to the bafflement of His Excellency.
“Many international organisations, universities, academic institutes use Thailand as one of the best practice cases for her handling of Covid-19,” he says from his office in Kensington. “The World Health Organization cited Thailand as a successful case study and we are very proud of our achievement.
“As a result of our outstanding success, we are very keen for the British government to include Thailand in the travel corridors they have instituted. This would enable us to allow British visitors and organisations to enter Thailand to start building up our economy again. ”
Redefining the challenges
Thailand initiated a programme of Three R’s – response, readiness and resilience – as soon as coronavirus began its uncontrolled spread globally. Emergency decrees closed the country’s borders and restricted movement, with the creation of a government control centre to oversee public health measures and align all policy to protecting its citizens.
Speed and efficiency ensured that the virus was stopped in its tracks wherever it was detected, thanks to the network of village volunteers for public health who cared for those in the community and assisted in the track-and-trace programmes.
“We changed the doctrine of public health 20 years ago from defensive to preventive measures and this is what has saved us,” says His Excellency. “Small village hospitals could take care of minor cases while more severe cases were sent to subdistrict hospitals or to larger hospitals in major towns. It’s a very efficient network. ”
The engagement of the Thai people is also crucial. Public education and participation has been successful – social media has been invaluable in passing on the doctrines of handwashing and face masks, which are now used by citizens in all social situations. His Excellency has first-hand knowledge of the exponential rise in face coverings – “My friend runs a garment factory supplying Adidas and Puma with fashionable face masks now,” he says. Coupled with the traditional Thai greeting that avoids touching others, the risks of transmission are now very low, with more than 70 days without a new case in the country.
“All these measures were introduced with the first case of coronavirus in late January, controlling it at the onset. And we are confident we can deal with a second wave if it happens. Daily life is nearly back to normal in Bangkok, though public transport is still not
as busy as before, and we are hoping that the special decree will be lifted soon. ”
The key to returning to ‘normality’ lies in a successful vaccine, but most governments are aware that this will not be a quick solution. Trials will take time, production will also have its own timescales, and rollout globally could take many years. To this end, Thailand has engaged with the Oxford vaccine project in partnership with Astra Zeneca and has offered to create laboratories and production processes to speed up accessibility in the ASEAN region.
“Governments have to balance the control of the virus and their economic liabilities,” says His Excellency. “But this virus has come without warning, and it may mutate and become more dangerous. So we all have to be ready and guard against a resurgence or an outbreak of a different virus. By working with the UK, we can help create a front against the pandemic to mitigate any further occurrences. ”
In the meantime, the Thai government is considering measures to open up its tourism sector again. They are looking to introducing Covid-19 tests on arrival at international airports which, if negative, will allow tourists to continue to holiday islands where they will be tested again and quarantined for a few days as an added precaution. Inevitably, this will only be affordable for those in a higher income bracket who are able to add the extra days to their holiday.
Coupled with efficient medical facilities at the location, tourists will feel more confident about making the long journey to Thailand and able to enjoy a holiday in some of the world’s most beautiful surroundings. “It’s about encouraging tourism to a few destinations to begin with,” His Excellency says. “If it’s successful we can modify and expand the project. ”
In addition, the new airport city in the Eastern Economic Corridor could be designated for tourism with high speed rail connections to the rest of the country. Along with passenger services, it will be a major cargo hub with aviation services and logistics, opening up the ASEAN region for companies by providing a toehold in the region.
“Aviation will come back, but not for two to three years,” says the Ambassador. “We have had to revise our estimates but we consider the new airport should be handling 40 million passengers per year. In the meantime we have other infrastructure projects such as the deep seaports and high speed rail networks to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. While we also require investment and support in the supply side, we also need management and soft skills to ensure smooth running of all these operations. ”
Key to all of this is the digital infrastructure that Thailand is putting in place. With 5G operational in the Eastern Economic Corridor next year and the Village Broadband Internet scheme throughout the country, the aim is to produce the next generation of Thais who can move out of subsistence and into a more economically rewarding environment.
The Ambassador tells the story of a young girl born into a poor farming family who was sent by her parents to study in Bangkok. She was a high achiever and spent years in the financial sector, returning to her parents’ smallholding to turn it into a profit-making enterprise. From solely relying on rice in their small paddy fields, she created an edible insects business, raising crickets for export.
“She taught herself via the Internet,” says His Excellency. “Now nearly all small farmers have a mobile phone and the possibilities for self-improvement are in place. Digital developments cannot just only enhance opportunities of people in terms of economic livelihood, but could also enable social mobility and connection between the countryside and the urban areas. ”
As the son of a former government official for the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ambassador takes great pleasure in this type of achievement. “We are making great improvements and we will do even more with British companies. Here at the Embassy, we are able to help you, so get in touch and we will make it happen. ”
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