THAILAND - Business people are happy that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is helping to boost trade opportunities - but experts in international relations have questioned whether the returns warrant the cost of her globetrotting.
Federation of Thai Industries chairman Payungsak Chartsutipol said getting business people to join her trips increased opportunities for trade and investment with foreign countries.
Representatives from related business clusters are usually allowed to join each trip. Normally, 27 to 70 people tag along. However, delegates from as many as 109 agencies joined in the trip to China last April, he said.
"When coming with the government, Thai businesses can access foreign government and private organisations and foreign firms gain more confidence to invest in Thailand," he said. "Many times, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking had chances to sign MoUs with foreign private organisations and open business opportunities such as information exchange and business matching."
Last month, the Joint Standing Committee on Commerce, Industry and Banking signed memoradums of understanding (MoUs) with Montenegro's Chamber of Commerce, the Swiss-Asian Chamber of Commerce and the Federation of Italian Industry.
When joining trips with the PM, companies covered their own travel costs, but is it worth the money in the long run?
"As far as I know, the companies are happy because they get more opportunities than they would if they went by themselves," he said.
Isara Vongkusolkit, chairman of Thai Chamber of Commerce, said that after these trips, the private sector was able to maintain ties through means such as the annual exchange between chambers of commerce.
The private sector is currently talking with the Foreign Ministry to prepare for trips in the latter part of this year. The plans include visits to Ethiopia, Russia and Japan, he said.
A European diplomat who asked not to be named said it is good for the Thai leader to visit as many countries as she can, given the country's bad publicity after the coup. Thailand has a lot of potential and positive publicity will strengthen its prospects, he said.
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn, former deputy secretary-general to the PM under Abhisit Vejjajiva, said a Thai premier would travel to promote relations with neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia - to introduce himself or herself on taking office, or elevate relations, open up a market or to solve severe problems. This needed a lot of preparation.
"A prime minister travelling to promote the country's image is a very expensive investment. Actually, some agencies are already in charge [of this]. The exception would be roadshows if there are crises such as a military coup or bloodshed in the country. But that is already normal in Thailand," he said.
"We should examine what Thailand gets from each of our leader's trips - how much was spent and whether it was worth it. There are times that travelling abroad caused [Yingluck] to lose the chance to solve problems locally. Some problems - if she decides by herself - could be solved easily."
Besides the objectives of such trips, Kasit Piromya, foreign minister in Abhisit's government, said a prime minister might travel abroad to attend international meetings. "However, Yingluck's trips appear to lack clear objectives. Importantly, she should go abroad only when the country's situation is good, not when there are problems waiting for her to solve."
Yingluck has only been showing off that she came to power in a fully democratic election. But after her first six months, she has had no achievements, he said, adding that he did not think she was boosting the country's reputation.
"A prime minister has no right to spend tens of millions of baht to promote herself. This is not a Miss Universe contest. How can she earn fame for the country when it is so hectic locally?" Kasit asked, adding that any international media outlet that ranked Yingluck as influential might have looked too much on the surface.
Another former foreign minister, Noppadon Pattama, who served under the government of Samak Sundaravej, said Yingluck's trips were planned to suit the country's foreign strategy. They benefited Thailand in terms of trade and investment, as well as international relations.
"The achievements from the PM's trips can be seen from the number of agreements signed, the higher international trade value, and tighter international relationships with other countries," he said.
The legal adviser to former PM Thaksin - Yingluck' s brother - conceded that Thaksin has visited several countries before or after his sister, but said they were never in the same country at the same time. "He might give some advice, as the slogan 'Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai does' [suggests], but he does nothing [that brings about] any conflict of interest. He already has everything [he might want]," Noppadon said.