Thailand's ambitious plan to host World Expo 2020 is in jeopardy as the Pheu Thai government appears reluctant to continue with the bidding effort.
Nong Thai, a mascot representing the traditional Thai giant chosen for the country’s bid to host World Expo 2020, greets people at the Siam BTS station in August 2011 as part of a campaign to inform the public about the bid. PATIPAT JANTHONG
"The government needs to reconsider whether the bid is worth the investment and what the rate of investment return is," said PM's Office Minister Niwatthamrong Bunsongphaisan. "We should not invest if the project is not worthwhile."
A study by Kasetsart University estimates that it would cost at least 70 billion baht to develop Expo facilities at the chosen site in Ayutthaya, along with related infrastructure.
Thailand is among five countries that have lodged official bids for Expo 2020. The others are Turkey, Russia, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates. The winner will be announced in November. The World Expo takes place every five years and runs for six months.
Supporters of the expo bid campaign have experienced setbacks in the form of political changes, budget cuts, and more recently, the vacuum created by the death of Chumpol Silpa-archa, the former tourism and sports minister.
The Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) recently made an inspection visit to Thailand and left with many questions unanswered. The most critical one, said a source familiar with events, was how the country intended to use the 1,280-rai expo site to generate income and recover its costs after the event ends.
Another BIE inspection is scheduled for June, if Thailand is still in the race.
The former Democrat government approved the TCEB's original proposal to bid to stage World Expo 2020, under the theme "Redefine Globalisation: Balanced Life, Sustainable Living".
The Pheu Thai government in February last year approved the expo campaign, but said the Foreign Ministry would oversee it. That and other factors led to the resignation of Akapol Sorasuchart as the TCEB president in March. He was replaced as acting president by Thongchai Sridama, a former chairman of Thailand Privilege Card, operator of the moribund Thailand Elite Card, a costly legacy of Thaksin Shinawatra.
The Foreign Ministry advised that lobbying other countries is the key to winning major international events. But Thailand was nowhere to be seen at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, where the UAE and Russian bid teams were busy lobbying global leaders.
The TCEB has been subject to increasing political intervention since Pheu Thai took office. It has brought the agency _ and its 800-million-baht budget _ under tighter rein of the Tourism and Sports Ministry, controlled by the Chartthaipattana Party of veteran political fixer Banharn Silpa-archa.
The Democrat government originally approved a budget for fiscal 2012 of 1.01 billion baht for the TCEB, including 100 million for the expo bid. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government cut the budget to 801 million baht, and eliminated all expo-related spending.
The cost of staging the expo is a major concern for the government, given all of its other heavy spending commitments, said the source.
The Kasetsart University study showed Thailand would need to invest up to 40 billion baht in facilities and buildings, and another 33 billion to develop infrastructure including expanded road and rail links to serve the expo site.
The National Economic and Social Development Board estimated that Expo 2020 could add 4.95% to gross domestic product, based on 37 million visitors: 30 million domestic and 7 million foreign.
A source from Government House said the BIE representatives might already have been aware that the Thai government was about to quit the contest, since the premier herself had never demonstrated serious interest in the bid.
Pongsak Assakul, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce said business leaders have been unable to get a clear answer about the government's commitment. If it wants to continue to pursue the event, he said, it must show a serious intent to the BIE.
Mr Pongsak said the TCEB appeared to have been operating in low gear since Mr Akapol stepped down. The current acting president lacks full authority to push the campaign forward, he said.
"It would be regrettable if the government scraps the bid because Thailand is expected to gain lots of benefits from the event," he said. "However, it depends on the government's decision, as this involves a massive investment."
Mr Thongchai said the Tourism Ministry had planned to establish a new expo campaign committee in January but Chumpol's death slowed work.
He said the TCEB and the ministry were still committed to continuing the campaign with 50 million baht this year, the same as the amount spent last year.
Despite costs of 70 billion baht, revenue would be 60 billion, he added.
However, Mr Thongchai could not explain how the location would be used after the expo ends.
About the author
- Writer: Chatrudee Theparat
Position: Business Reporter