Economic uncertainty clouds the country's outlook after the Bank of Thailand surprisingly hiked its policy interest rate to a 10-year high of 2.5% to battle inflation and prepare for global fluctuations.
The government set an ambitious GDP target of 4.4% for next year, surging from the 2.5-3.0% projected for this year.
With the tourism industry seen as a cure for a bruised economy amid weak exports, analysts believe this industry might not be sustainable without proper strategies to enhance the long-term competitiveness of other sectors.
Efforts to find a new economic engine have started as the cabinet approved a policy to support the creative economy by establishing a national soft power strategy committee chaired by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. This board includes representatives from 10 ministries and notable business leaders from various industries.
However, as implementation of related policies such as "One Family, One Soft Power" remain in doubt, the private sector is monitoring how the committee can make soft power a strong economic tool, not just a buzzword or "must-have keyword" that state authorities use to secure budgets without integrated policies.
Pundits also want to see how this body will differentiate itself from the soft power committee set up by the previous government last year, which accomplished very little.
Visit Limlurcha, president of the Thai Future Food Trade Association, said the One Family, One Soft Power policy is feasible, but it requires dedicated efforts to give communities the knowledge needed to inspire them to consider creating community-based products and services, particularly those associated with medicinal herbs and massage.
If communities can produce good products and services, the government can support them by registering geographical indications to promote them, he said. Influencers can also be brought in to help with promotion.
Mr Visit, also honorary president of the Thai Food Processors Association, said tourism deserves a special focus.
He said there should be a concerted effort to speed up the promotion of high-potential tourism and health tourism, attracting wealthy visitors here, while also establishing a fund for operators and risk assurance for times of crisis.
Laws need to be amended to avoid obstacles, while airports should be upgraded, alongside investment in nationwide infrastructure, including transport to connect destinations, said Mr Visit.
Mr Kriengkrai says Thai art, culture and sports such as Muay Thai can be used to increase the value of textile products.
COOKING UP SOMETHING
Tanit Choomsang, president of the Chiang Mai Restaurant and Bistro Association, said a soft power strategy should be implemented to produce chefs at the beginner levels to fill gaps at small restaurants, serving the growing demand of tourists as well as local consumers.
It can take 10 years to develop a skilled professional cook, but he hopes the government can help trainees achieve that level within a four-year time frame.
Mr Tanit said the One Family, One Soft Power strategy to develop 20 million skilled creative workers is a good move to increase Thailand's competitiveness.
He said the Pheu Thai Party's plan to allow cooking internships through a collaboration between cooking schools and restaurants, a policy of the Thailand Creative Content Agency (Thacca), is a useful tactic to train chefs.
Thacca aims to be a one-stop agency that can integrate all efforts and budgets to develop an ecosystem of soft power industries.
The agency wants to eliminate redundant rules among organisations, centralising those processes in a single place.
Mr Tanit said the project should consider opening a public cooking school to provide opportunities to more people, as most professional chefs either trained on their own or graduated from expensive private cooking schools.
He said the government should support Thai restaurants abroad through budget allocation and coordinate with related organisations and the public sector in each country.
"Thai food like khao soi or kaprao is already well-known around the world. The question is how to increase its accessibility and generate more value," said Mr Tanit.
Food as culture produced by chefs and restaurants should be highlighted in tour packages as "gastronomy tourism", he said.
POWER OF INDUSTRIES
Thailand can build up soft power through its creative industries such as food and textiles, but it needs to ensure policies and action plans have a clear direction, according to the Federation of Thai Industries (FTI).
Kriengkrai Thiennukul, chairman of the FTI, did not delineate a framework, but noted development of creative industries is not a job solely for the government.
"Thailand has many strong points that can be used to develop soft power. Both state agencies and businesses need to cooperate and set clear goals," he said.
The latest survey of 45 industries under the FTI found many of them have the potential to support the creative economy, which promotes creativity-driven innovations, and the government's soft power policy.
Thai food is renowned worldwide and manufacturers can use this strength to produce and export Thai food products, while adding value to farm produce supplied to factories, said Mr Kriengkrai.
Thai art, culture and sports like Muay Thai can also be used to increase the value of textile products, he said.
Muay Thai shorts, which are worn by boxers during their fights, are popular among foreigners who are interested in the martial art.
During a recent meeting with the government on soft power, the FTI agreed to help authorities translate the soft power policy into action as it can serve as a measure to raise the competitiveness of Thai industries, said Mr Kriengkrai.
Participants at the meeting focused on five industries with the potential to support the creative economy and develop soft power: food, films, fashion, fighting (referring to Thai self-defence), and festivals (traditional celebrations).
These industries will not only help Thailand earn more revenue, but also build a positive image for the country, he said.
KITCHEN OF THE WORLD
The "Kitchen of the World" initiative needs to be ramped up to increase exports of Thai food products and expand foreign markets, promoting Thai food identity to become well-known worldwide and trusted by global customers, according to Mr Visit.
He agreed with Mr Tanit that the government should provide additional funding to restaurants, adding the state should offer low-interest loans while removing trade barriers.
Expanding street food areas, which attract foreign tourists, can generate more income for the country, said Mr Visit.
Various industries should be interconnected, such as agricultural raw materials, processed agricultural products and promotion of agricultural products, by increasing production per rai, he said.
Knowledge exchange about agriculture is needed to make Thailand a major global exporter of agricultural products, while various industries should be promoted together, such as movies or Thai series that showcase Thai herbal products, food and local cuisine, said Mr Visit.
The government has been urged to address labour shortages in the industrial sector and increase spending in knowledge-based industries to stimulate future investments.
"Thailand has great opportunities based on its unique strengths and advantages. Each region of the country is unique with distinctive characteristics, offering the chance to promote the simultaneous experience of culture and local cuisine within communities," he said.
"This concept can transform them into gastronomic villages or local tables, emphasising cultural appreciation and immersion in the local way of life of each region, which has its own identity, such as traditional Thai massage, textile weaving and culinary traditions.
"Opening up new dining experiences in each community with unique tastes and scents can mean using local ingredients to create unique community dishes. Storytelling is needed to increase the value of food and promote Thai charm through tourism."
The government should use tax measures to support startups to create soft power, said Thanavath Phonvichai, president of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
He said in many countries, such as South Korea, the government has a clear policy to promote the country's soft power, both in the form of subsidies and tax incentives.
Thailand should follow that path, either through special funding or reduction of the corporate income tax rate to incentivise the development of Thai soft power, such as showing movies at the Cannes Film Festival, said Mr Thanavath.
He said the global model for exporting soft power is Hollywood, which fosters assimilation of American culture through films and music, with Japan, Hong Kong and South Korea following suit.
For Thailand, startups should be supported as they have a wider market coverage than small and medium-sized enterprises, said Mr Thanavath.
One popular film that depicts Thai soft power in food is Hunger.
Thailand has a good foundation for exporting soft power because anything that ends with the word Thai is internationally applauded, such as Thai massage, Pad Thai and Thai cuisine, he said.
Tourism is another sector driven by soft power. Income from foreign tourist arrivals amounts to 2 trillion baht per year, and it is estimated that half of this is attributed to Thai soft power.
The export of raw materials for Thai food as well as Thai films are estimated to generate 10 billion baht in income for the country, said Mr Thanavath.