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Top 10 predictions for Thailand 2020

The Thaiger

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So what is in store for the Land of Smiles over the next 12 months? Will the tourists stay away? Will some big projects go ahead? Will the baht continue to soar? Will Thais take to the streets once again? We come up with our top ten predictions for the year ahead and invite your thoughts as well…

There will be more political unrest

Last year’s March election did little to change the political landscape in Thailand. Following an ‘election’, followed by weeks of horse-trading and number-counting, a government emerged. Surprise, surprise, the same PM with most of the same faces in the leading roles. Add to this the ‘selected’ 250 Senate members, all hand-picked by the former NCPO ruling junta that had seized power in May 2014 in a bloodless coup against the elected Yingluck Shinawatra government.

As they say in Thailand… same, same but different. The political sleight of hand was enough to convince foreign government naysayers of the earlier coup to now legitimise the new flourishing of democracy in Thailand. Even the current Thai prime minister, affectionally known as “Uncle Tu”, would gladly agree that the situation that exists now is a ‘Thai-style’ quasi-democracy that the (mostly) men in power claim is vital for the Kingdom’s stability.

But even with a quasi democracy you can have dissenting voices and they will be heard more often and louder in 2020. This time the voices aren’t rebellious street protests led by lone voices. In 2020 one of Thailand’s most well organised and funded businessmen will lead the charge.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit missed becoming Prime Minister by mere votes when the lower house sat down and voted for the top job. Thanathorn’s base is Thailand’s younger voters, but also the many who were sick of the decades of Shinawatra vs Establishment vote-coup-vote cycles. Thanathorn is only 42 years old and in no rush. 2020 will see his Future Forward Party (which faces being disbanded by the Constitutional Court this month), or newer incarnations of the same thing, become a stirring voice of change in Thailand.

We certainly don’t think there will be a coup in 2020 but there will be growing pressures on the new Government to perform. They start the year with their hands on the levers of a troubled economy. In fairness, most of the problems are not of their own doing. But the voters will wonder why their pockets aren’t as full as before and the sitting Government will get the blame.

The Phuket Light Rail project will be scrapped

The 48 billion Phuket Light Rail/Tram/Train project has been pushed along by a few stoic public servants in Bangkok. Hatched during the time of the NCPO, the ambitious 60 kilometre tram service is still being mulled by the new government. It was certainly never requested or demanded by Phuket locals, and going by the planned route, it appears the instigators have never even been to Phuket.

The service would start at the airport (originally the plans were going to start the tram in Phang Nga), make its way out to Thepkasattri Road (the main north-south route), then follow all the way down to Phuket Town, and then along Chao Fah East road to Chalong circle – just about all the places tourists don’t go. The planned route doesn’t go anywhere near the busy west coast towns of Kata, Karon, Surin, Bang Tao, Kamala or Patong. Even worse, the tram would take up valuable space in the middle of the island’s busiest road which needs more lanes, not fewer. Locals can’t even start to imagine the three or four years of construction pain along the busy route.

Currently the project has been ‘postponed’ pending some “further reviews”. We believe this is code for “we’ve actually visited Phuket and realise just about everything about the planned Light Rail is wrong”. Standby for an announcement this year that the Phuket Light Rail project has been “shelved”.

Thai Airways will be sliced up and sold

If you or I ran a business that produced massive amounts of losses, year on year, we’d now be driving taxis in Pattaya. No one would let us near the cash register ever again. Yet, the country’s legacy airline Thai Airways has been dong precisely that. Haemorrhaging money with nary a change to a dated business model or ageing fleet. In 2019 Thai Airways lost 11 billion baht and the government funders must be wondering how long they can keep propping up this flying dinosaur.

The government will finally bite the bullet and say enough is enough. There will be demands to cut costs in all sectors of government spending and the bottomless-pit of bail-outs for the national airline will have to stop.

Whatever process occurs to get rid of the noose around the Thai government’s neck, that process will start this year. We predict that their budget offshoot, Thai Smile, will be abandoned and merged with the main brand and a process of privatisation will begin.

Thailand will have another record year of tourist arrivals

A tsunami couldn’t stop it, several coups have come and gone, the world economy is in decline but Thailand’s tourist numbers keep rising. It’s the Teflon Tourism Syndrome. Without any other figures to back up their wailing from the back rows, the naysayers say they simply don’t believe the three decades of growth – that the numbers are cobbled together by public servants protecting their jobs in Bangkok.

The facts are quite clear – by auditing flight numbers, aircraft landing slots, growth in tours, numbers of tour boats, numbers of hotels, customer counts at shopping centres, numbers of new taxis plus the addition of ride-sharing in recent years – tourists continue to arrive in Thailand.

The demographics have changed, along with the spending patterns, surprising many with the quick evolution from an exotic-oddity-attracting-Western-tourists-seeking-‘something new’, to a more stable tourist economy feeding off the growing middle classes within a five hour flight of the Kingdom.

The baht will start dropping in value and the Thai economy will stabilise

The Thai economy has certainly slowed in recent years. But the threat of descending into recession this year is small. Whilst GDP growth predictions are only around 2-3% for 2020, a few key pressures should ease this year. With such a high reliance on the tourism business the government will be keen to maintain high traffic and earnings from all aspects of tourism around the Kingdom in 2020.

Pressures that emerged in 2019 – the surging Thai baht, US-China trade wars, a waning world economy, a plateau of tourism arrival numbers – are also expected to dissipate this year.

There are now concerted efforts to try and stop the baht rising any higher in value against key currencies (although the government has limited tools to control this), the US-China trade spat will be resolved (because stability will be needed by the Trump camp with the US Presidential vote coming up in November), and there is no obvious barrier to increased tourist traffic this year as the Chinese are predicted to return in numbers and emerging tourism feeder markets are opening up with new flights.

The US-China trade war will be resolved

With a US Presidential election coming up at the end of this year the US-China trade dispute WILL be resolved. The resolution will be used as an example of President Trump’s abilities as a negotiator (despite his complete absence in any of the negotiations), and his suitability for re-election. Such is politics.

Thailand has suffered little during the knee-jerk reactions of international companies as they scampered to re-align their businesses with the sanctions that were imposed on China. In fact a few US companies have moved their manufacturing from China to Thailand (and Vietnam). Still, Thailand was a supplier for components on many products that were being built in China for export to the US, so there has been fallout.

Thailand has courted both China and the US, and visa versa, during the ongoing trade negotiations with a few major procurements from both nations. Thailand is clearly keeping its options open. The US fears the south east nation with the second largest economy was starting to tilt towards China. With an economy expected to become the world’s largest during this decade, and it’s growing outbound tourism, Thailand is being smart hooking up to the Chinese economic train.

Christmas will continue to be a ‘thing’

Over recent years we’ve noted the rise of Christmas as a celebration, not only increasingly being enjoyed by Thais, but truly embraced. The lights, the decorations, the presents, the spending – what’s not to like?! And of course the jolly old farang in the red suit. It’s certainly becoming a ‘thing’ with the Thais and we predict it will continue to gather popularity in Thai culture.

Thais have been known to celebrate just about anything and everything and we predict that Christmas will become more and more popular with the locals, even if they have no idea why the west celebrate December 25.

Gambling and casinos will be legalised this year

The rise of gambling locations on Thailand’s backdoor will surely pressure the Thai government to open up a few legalised casinos in selected locations. Pattaya and Phuket are two obvious locations although we predict that there will never be one located in Bangkok. Gambling, whilst officially illegal in Thailand, is a popular pastime.

Meanwhile, in next-door Cambodia, the seaside resort town of Sihanoukville, facing the Gulf of Thailand, has been transformed into a mini-Macau with legalised gambling turning the quaint, disheveled Cambodianseaside resort into a major attraction for Chinese gamblers. It’s not pretty but the Thai government won’t want to lose out on extracting money out of Chinese gamblers’ pockets.

Fighting and interceptions will intensify along the northern border

The Golden Triangle was a term coined back in the 1970s for the growing heroin trade in the region where the Thai, Burmese and Chinese borders intersect. The term is now been used again describing exactly the same location. But the poppy fields have been replaced with meth labs churning out vast quantities of methamphetamine – pills and crystal form – for external markets.

This year the growth has been huge and the meth factories, makeshift tarp-covered labs, are becoming portable whilst hiding under the massive jungle canopies of north-western Myanmar.

The huge drug business ins’t a ‘business’ until the drugs can be trafficked south, into Thailand, and then beyond. There is now growing pressure for the Thai government to massively ramp up its surveillance and arrests. But the government has its hand out for subsidies for the surveillance operations. The Australian and US drug agencies have already identified the region as a major international drug feeder and will be furnishing the Thai government with plenty of inducements to increase the size and scope of interceptions.

Number 10?

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