Kingdom recovers from chaos

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 December, 2010, 12:00am

Amid celebrations for highly revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej's birthday today, Thais will be taking stock of the relative calm after scenes of chaos in Bangkok earlier this year, when red-shirted anti-government protesters besieged the streets.

One immediate effect of the unrest in April and May was the cancellation of holidays by Hong Kong tour groups. Travel industry leaders have now put fears about political violence behind them as Thailand seeks to maintain its standing as the third most popular destination for Hongkongers after the mainland and Macau.

Concerns also seem to have been allayed among tourists from other parts of the world. Official government figures show 1.19 million tourists entered Thailand in September - an increase of 13.3 per cent on the previous year. A total of 14.8 million are expected to have visited by the end of the year.

In turn, the number of Thai visitors to Hong Kong is also on the rise, with monthly figures from Hong Kong Tourism Board showing 26,665 having arrived in September - a rise of 16.2 per cent on the same period last year.

Despite six heads of government and several major protests since tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted as prime minister in 2006, recent business indicators are mainly positive. Airports in Thailand, for instance, last week announced a doubling of full-year profits, mainly on the back of exchange rate and investment gains.

The most visible sign of Thailand's exports in Hong Kong are supermarket shelves piled high with Thai rice. Yet, overall, data-processing machines account for the main export, followed by car parts, accessories and cars from Thai assembly lines. Toyota, the world's largest carmaker, plans to produce 12,000 units of its hi-tech Prius hybrid vehicle each year in Thailand.

Rice only comes after precious stones and jewels on Thailand's league of export products, accounting for 3.56 per cent of the total, according to official figures. Asean members and China form the biggest trade partners, with Hong Kong taking 6.22 per cent of Thai exports. When it comes to market share for commodities, such as rice, tapioca, rubber and shrimp, Thailand dominates, with a 71 per cent hold on tapioca. Its market share is also rising for rice and rubber.

Price controls and subsidies help keep down inflation, which is forecast at 3.3 per cent for this year.

Thailand's Consul General to Hong Kong, Jitti Suwannik, says business leaders and Thai agencies are working closely to ensure trade ties remain strong. He says Hong Kong is the kingdom's fourth most important export market.

'The role of co-ordinating bodies, such as the Hong Kong-Thailand Business Council in Hong Kong and Thailand-Hong Kong Business Council in Thailand, is vital in promoting further contacts for our mutual interests,' Jitti says.

Another familiar Thai brand in local supermarkets is Charoen Pokphand Foods, better known as CP Foods. Vice-president for overseas marketing Kosit Lohawatanakul says sales in Asia, particularly Singapore and South Korea, have risen 30-40 per cent from last year. In Hong Kong, however, sales have remained stable due to 'distribution issues'.

Shrimp is a leading export for the company. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill this year saw stocks in Louisiana destroyed. However, Kosit says that meant shrimp exports to the United States - already Thailand's biggest shrimp market - rose significantly following the disaster.

'We managed to maintain like-for-like sales throughout the recession. Our products have always been good value for money, and US consumers appreciate this,' Kosit says. 'Prices in US dollar terms have certainly increased for many of our raw materials. However, the appreciation of the baht helped offset some of the price increases.'

CP has built on its reputation among Hong Kong consumers for safe food products, particularly following the avian flu crisis and other health scares. Market share for such products as eggs is continuing to grow.

'In [mainland] China, our sales have increased more than 10 times compared to last year, albeit from a small base. The potential for the CP brand in China is huge,' Kosit says.

'We can pick virtually any target group in China and divide it and further narrow down the target group anyway we want, and the numbers are still huge. The trick really is to get the product and the pricing right, and then everything falls into place. Chinese consumers are more and more aware of food safety issues, and this is where food brands come into play.'