Worapol is a former admiral turned infrastructure manager with the task of running an airport - which will still be formally owned by the navy - as a commercial venture but still give the navy full access for responsibilities such as the massive Cobra Gold regional military exercise.
Thai officials offer different explanations for how an airport has been extracted from naval use to become the key piece of infrastructure needed to give credibility to the plans to build an entirely new foreigner friendly digital city, tourism resorts and a new regional aviation servicing hub in the area.
Some say it needed a military government to break an impasse and others say it was always on the long-term agenda.
But unlike other parts of the EEC planning for trains and cities which are still in the planning stage, Worapol has already advanced with military precision and moved 700,000 passengers using the facility last year got.
That appears to put him well on the way to his target of three million which will help justify the plans for a fast train link to Bangkok’s main Suvarnabhumi Airport and the original airport closer to central Bangkok.
“The three airports will become like one airport and getting on a plane at another airport will be easy,” he says, underlining how tourism remains a key part of Thailand’s future economic planning despite all the focus on high tech industries.
Worapol’s plans to create a regional aviation hub in the area gained a big boost in February when a newly created US-based aviation maintenance firm TurbineAero decided to make the U-Tapao area its main non-US operational base.
The company’s chief executive Robert Higby says Asia is the fastest growing aviation market in the world but doesn’t have the capacity to service all the aircraft on order so Thailand has a good prospect of establishing itself as a hub in this industry, partly because it is less expensive than Singapore which now dominates South East Asian maintenance.
“Thailand is going to do an incredible job to get aviation businesses,” he says, applauding how the EEC will bring together good shipping services and free trade zone-style conditions.
Higby says TurbineAero will be now pushing to bring more Australian aviation maintenance work to its Thai facility.
NOT TO WORRY
One of the biggest challenges to Thailand’s plans to create a modern digital economy in this area best known for tourism and old manufacturing is whether its education system can produce the qualified workers given it has been overtaken in international school (PISA) comparisons by neighbouring but less developed Vietnam.
Higby says this doesn’t worry him because his sort of business takes the top end technicians and then invests more in training.
Others concede how Thailand revamps its education system is critical to whether it can pull off its digital economy plan or fall into what economists call the middle-income trap of being dependent on basic manufacturing.
Prime ministerial adviser Kobsak Pootrakul says it is “one of the most important questions”.
“All the things we have been talking about could not be fulfilled (without educational improvements),” he says.
Thailand is particularly reliant of Japanese assistance to raise the quality of vocational education, Pootrakul says, because of the dominant role Japanese companies have in existing factories.
Senior Thai businessman Kan Trakulhoom, a director of Siam Cement Group, says Thailand’s spending on research and development is too low and Thai companies need to spend more in this area to underpin the government plans.
“It is very important to expand our knowledge (with R&D) and not just buy licences (to produce foreign-designed products in Thailand),” he says.
Greg Earl was The Australian Financial Review correspondent in South East Asia for five years and has also worked for the Singapore Business Times, the Financial Times and Asiaweek in the region. He travelled to Thailand as a guest of the Board of Investment.
All photos by Greg Earl