Thailand's ambitious plans for a wellness corridor along its Andaman Coast underscores the coming together of different players for the development of the country's regions.
With the goal of capturing ten per cent of a global wellness market estimated to be worth US$7.5 billion by 2027, the Bangkok government proposes to create an Andaman Wellness Corridor (AWC) on the West Coast of South Thailand. Coming as Southeast Asia slowly emerges from the Covid-19 pandemic, this initiative illustrates both trends in Thai approaches to regional development and the fact that military dominance and the technology sector’s obsession with ‘innovation’ now go hand in hand in Thailand.
Ambitions for the AWC were revealed at a 21 January meeting convened by the Department of Health Service Support of the Ministry of Public Health on the Phuket campus of Prince of Songhkla University (PSU). Department Director-General Thares Krasanairawiwong, who leads the ministry’s working group on the wellness sector, chaired the meeting. Participants included the governor of Phang Nga Province, the deputy governor of Phuket Province, the deputy director of an entity called the Program Management Unit on Area Based Development and the secretary general of an organisation known as the National Charter. They also included businesspeople active in the tourism sector in provinces on Thailand’s Andaman Coast.
Dr Thares noted the health ministry’s interest in the wellness economy, adhering to the twenty-year National Strategy promulgated by Thailand’s 2014-2019 National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) junta. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha has also stressed the role of the wellness sector in the country’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Thares announced that his department was planning a ‘wellness single license’ — covering traditional Thai and ‘Eastern’ medicine, spas and beauty clinics, health restoration, elder care and digital health — for hotels and other establishments. More than a hundred hotels on the Andaman Coast of South Thailand have participated in training on health promotion organised by Dr Thares’s department and the National Charter. The region’s resultant suitability for a wellness economy zone led the department, the National Charter, PSU and the Program Management Unit on Area Based Development to call the 21 January meeting and seek input into the AWC for the wellness sector working group, Thailand’s Medical Hub Committee, and the cabinet.
The deputy director of the Program Management Unit on Area Based Development — under the Office of National Higher Education Science Research, ‘an autonomous public agency affiliated to the Ministry of Higher Education, Science, Research and Innovation’ — affirmed at the meeting a commitment to developing a strategy for the AWC. He highlighted a determination to introduce ‘innovation’ to spur investment in the wellness economy. The unit has already worked with PSU, the National Charter and Phuket’s Karon Subdistrict Municipality on the Karon Wellness Sandbox, a model for the AWC.
Another member of the wellness sector working group, the secretary general of the National Charter — an organisation dedicated to using ‘social collaboration’ to realise a ‘new urban development platform” for Thailand — stressed the AWC’s becoming a zone of innovation in health promotion, with the assistance of local government. The zone will bring about the physical and economic transformation of the West Coast, raising incomes and benefitting small and medium-size enterprises and even farmers active in Thai medicine, alternative medicine and the making of herbal products.
Whether such plans will reach fruition is unclear. Principals in the West Coast tourism sector, though aware of the need to adapt in an intensely competitive business, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the AWC.
Thai media outlets — MGR Online, Prachachat Thurakit and Than Setthakit — covered the 21 January meeting on the AWC in Phuket. A fortnight later, another meeting, held in Bangkok, brought together the Phuket Provincial Administrative Organisation, the Thailand Centre of Excellence for Life Sciences, the Institute for the Development of Medium and Small Enterprises, the Faculty of Science and Technology of Phuket Rajabhat University, the General Practitioners/ Family Physicians Association of Thailand, the Association for the Promotion of a New Thai Tourism Identity, and others to unveil a pilot plan for wellness and medical tourism in Phuket. The stated intention is to extend the pilot to the AWC as a whole.
Three weeks after the Bangkok gathering, the International Health Division of the Department of Health Service Support held a three-day meeting of representatives of Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi Provinces, whose purpose included deliberation on the AWC. A Phuket real-estate development group also announced plans to boost the Karon Wellness Sandbox through the construction of nine hotels, a convention hall, a ‘digital theme park’ and a cable car. Modelled on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, this project is also meant to serve as a pilot for the AWC.
Whether such plans will reach fruition is unclear. Principals in the West Coast tourism sector, though aware of the need to adapt in an intensely competitive business, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward the AWC. Refocussing their activities on wellness will require substantial investment in both the resort and the private-hospital sectors. In some parts of the region, there are questions about the government’s ability to deliver the reliable electric power supply and Internet connectivity needed to achieve the AWC’s ambitions.
While this caution seems justified, the plan to transform Thailand’s Andaman seaboard into an international wellness hub offers valuable take-aways to observers of Thai economic development.
First, the AWC’s focus on the tourism sector of Phuket, Phang Nga and Krabi may make it look like an exercise in grabbing low-hanging fruit. But the project represents an example of concrete thinking about moving the Thai tourism sector up-market after the pandemic.
Second, a stress on ‘innovation’ is at the centre of that thinking. Thailand’s recent spell of military rule and the return to the premiership of the former junta’s leader following elections look like a throwback, but one hallmark of the NCPO/Prayut era is the invocation of innovation. The Thai neologism for the concept (นวัตกรรม) appears 68 times in the 74 pages of the NCPO’s National Strategy. Military dominance and the embrace of the “tech” world’s fetishisation of innovation have gone hand and hand in contemporary Thailand.
The National Strategy also assigns a role to Thai universities in regional economic development. This leads to the final takeaway of the proposed AWC. The roles played by a string of official, quasi-official and non-official entities — PSU, the public health ministry’s Department of Health Service Support and International Health Division, the Program Management Unit on Area Based Development, the National Charter, among others — illustrates the metastasis of players active in regional development in Thailand. This new context is one that observers of change in the Thai provinces must understand.
Michael Montesano is Associate Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He was previously Coordinator of the Thailand and Myanmar Studies Programme at the institute.