Beach-boys may make way for cyber toys
First it was beach bums with chicks, now geeks with clicks.
Moves are afoot to try to transform Thailand's idyllic southern tourist island of Phuket into Asia's next cyber-haven.
As the country's economy recovers, ambitious plans to turn Phuket into a giant 'cyberport' have been dusted off to invigorate Thailand's fledgling information technology (IT) industry.
Dubbed the Phuket Cyberport and International City 2000, the proposed US$1 billion project is aimed to catch up to similar developments in Hong Kong, Bangalore, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.
It is hoped the venture will be incorporated into the government's ninth national economic and social development plan due to start next month, enabling construction to begin next year.
Thaweesak Koanantakwol, director of the state-run National Electronics and Computer Technology Centre, one of the main forces behind the cyberport project, believes Phuket can become a Singapore-style 'intelligent island'.
It is already wired with fibre optic cable, but this needs to be extended to every home.
The island also needs high-speed communications lines, something the Telephone Organisation of Thailand would address.
Phuket, 862 kilometres south of Bangkok, was picked for the proposed venture because it already boasts a world-class airport and seaport and a large supply of luxury hotels.
Besides, several US and European IT companies already have offices there.
To woo investment, a one-stop co-ordinating agency would be set up in Phuket and the capital, offering lucrative tax incentives to foreign investors.
Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai does not want Thailand to be a laggard in IT.
He has seen Singapore prosper by luring investors through tax incentives and hopes to do the same.
The ultimate goal is to remove polluting industries from Phuket to help maintain its tourism appeal, while providing the island with a second economic engine.
Science, Technology and Environment Minister Arthit Urairat says the blueprint for the massive undertaking has already won in-principle government backing.
The big question mark is whether Phuket Cyberport can catch up with its Asian rivals and successfully compete.
Thailand lags its neighbours in terms of producing homegrown IT professionals.
To kick-start a homegrown software industry, a software park has been opened in Bangkok.
However, it has attracted just 18 local software developers, leaving excess capacity for 80 firms.
To address such concerns, an international university providing IT education will be set up in Phuket.
Thailand's software industry is now worth US$350 million, annually doubling on average for the past six years, according to International Data Corporation, an independent market research firm.