Authorities in Thailand are gearing up for an expected 34 million foreign tourists in 2017. Particular attention is being paid to the country’s airports where an expected 150 million domestic passengers are anticipated on top of the foreign arrivals. All of the country’s international airports are experiencing refurbishment or expansion at the present time, whilst pressure is growing to upgrade the purely domestic ones, including Roi-et, Nakhon Ratchasima and Hua Hin.
As regards U-tapao international airport, the nearest air terminal to Pattaya, 800 million baht has already been spent to build a new passenger terminal in order to cater for increasing tourism on the Eastern Eaboard. U-tapao currently accommodates 4,000 passengers a day with a maximum capacity of 800,000 travellers per year. A further 400 million baht is scheduled to be spent in the current year and the budget includes improvements to the aviation communications system, the runway and the taxiway.
Once all improvements have been carried out, the airport should be able to serve up to 3 million passengers a year and increase capacity to allow 60,000 flights in a 12-months period. U-tapao also serves as a repair hub for Thai International as well as being used by the United States air force for weather reconnaissance and allied research. The original airport was built by the United States in the 1960s and was used for bombing runs to Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam war which finally ended in 1975 with the fall to communist insurgents of the capital cities in Indo China.
There has also been much speculation about a new fast-track rail system to link U-tapao with Pattaya and Bangkok, although specific funding and actual timetables have not been provided. Much of the detail has yet to be worked out, in particular whether the existing track will be expanded or whether a totally new route is to be introduced. Some critics say that a link between U-tapao and Pattaya is of marginal significance unless Pattaya railway station is moved from its current location near Pattaya Country Club Road, very far from the city centre and the beach areas. But other commentators say this point is non-consequential as most of the rail business would be freight rather than people.
Meanwhile, the government has announced that funding has been arranged to ensure that Suvarnabhumi airport can increase its annual passenger capacity from the current 45 million to 60 million by 2019. At Phuket international airport, capacity has been increased from 6 to 12 million persons a year after the completion of a new terminal. At Hua Hin domestic airport, there are plans to link with neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia as well as with other provinces in Thailand. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha claims that there is a 20-year development plan which includes airport expansion and logistics which have been pinpointed to link Thailand with the rest of Southeast Asia.
The government also supports the idea of rolling out the welcome mat for big spenders, especially from other Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. Over time, there is expected to be less emphasis on budget travellers and tours and more specific marketing aimed at wealthy individuals and concentrating on five-star hotels, yachting, high-end medical services, private jets and sports. In recent months, the army and the police have been cracking down on illegal businesses, non-registered hotels, foreign tourist guides (without the required permit) and zero sum holidays (group tours fully paid for in the home country before the vacation begins).
Visa policy is also under review as regards long-term expats. The government recently stated that a new 10-year retirement visa will be unveiled in 2017 in an attempt to encourage wealthier pensioners from overseas although the status of the current retirement visa is by no means clear. A new attempt is also being made to encourage membership of the Elite Card which can offer 20 years of residence in the Kingdom, and certain perks, in return for a 2 million baht one-off fee. There is also a “baby” elite card which offers residence for five years in return for a one-off payment of 500,000 baht.