The Transport Ministry is pressing ahead with plans for connectivity projects linking Thailand with neighbouring countries, in a move which should generate more investment opportunities and increase tourist arrivals.
Marine Department head Chula Sukmanop spoke about the planned infrastructure projects at a recent conference in Bangkok, saying that the government plans to develop and improve connectivity not only in relation to the country's seaports, but also cross-border and air transportation links with neighbouring countries.
"With its great geographical location, Thailand could become the connectivity centre for Southeast Asia. The government plans for the country to be akin to Germany, which is at the heart of Europe and is able to connect with surrounding countries by land, sea and air," he said.
Greater connectivity would bring in more business opportunities and investment, as well as more tourists, he said, adding, "Thailand would reap many benefits if the transportation system were to be improved."
Chula said ASEAN nations were opening up markets for air transport, which was bringing more air traffic into Thailand. Don Mueang Airport currently services 700 flights per day, only a little lower than the capacity at Suvarnabhumi Airport, which sees around 800 flights a day.
When Don Mueang completes its expansion this year, passenger capacity will soar from 18 million a year to more than 30 million. And when Suvarnabhumi finishes its expansion in 2017, capacity will jump from 45 to 60 million a year.
Airports in Phuket, Chiang Mai and Krabi are also expanding and when these projects are done, they will help bring more airlines and tourists.
Chiang Mai International Airport's current annual capacity is 6.8 million passengers, which is expected to nearly double to 13.2 million in 2018/19.
Phuket International Airport, meanwhile, is expected to serve up to 20 million passengers a year when its expansion is completed this year.
The Civil Aviation Department also plans to expand Krabi International Airport, with the aim of handling 3 million passengers per year.
Chula said the Transport Ministry also planned to develop 25 border provinces, turning them into new gateways, whether by land, air or sea.
"Our current connectivity is dysfunctional when it comes to land transport compared to sea and air connectivity, so the ministry will improve this aspect," the director-general said
He added that if all cross-border areas were turned into active gateways, the country would be able to link with China and India - and also beyond southern Thailand.
Aside from air and land transport projects, the ministry plans to improve existing seaports and seek investment in a bid to boost marine connectivity.
Mario Hardy, chief executive officer of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), said his body could help develop Thailand and Southeast Asia as single or cluster destinations by providing conferences and seminars for the public and private sectors, in order to engender better understanding about tourism.
The association can also help train local people, he said.
PATA urges the public and private sectors in Thailand to focus more on unique products, including home stays, Thai spas and communities, as 'Thainess'-related products are the main way to differentiate it from other countries, he added.
Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul, minister of tourism and sport, said Thailand was set to use tourism as a key tool to drive the economy and link people in the region, especially when the ASEAN Economic Community forms at the end of this year.
However, Thailand still faces many challenges as tourism is a global business that always operates in a highly competitive environment, she said.
Although the country welcomed almost 25 million foreign visitors last year, and is aiming for 28 million this year, it still needs to have proactive strategies to boost arrival numbers.
One ministry plans is to improve the online gateway for visitors, a project known as 'online visa', which is expected to be completed within two years, the minister said.
The ministry is also in the process of establishing an intelligence unit to improve infrastructure, and is rebranding five major destinations - Bangkok, Phuket, Nan, Pattaya and Phang Nga, and developing new attractions.
William E Heinecke, chairman and chief executive officer of Minor Hotel Group, told the conference that Thai tourism had returned to normal since the New Year.
Foreign tourists have changed their perception and understanding of the political situation and will continue to visit the country despite the government's retention of martial law, he said.