Dr, Itti Ditbanjong, Ambassador of Thailand to Russia. Source: Gleb Fedorov
After almost 4 years in Russia, Dr Itti Ditbanjong, Thailand’s Ambassador to Russia is set to return to Bangkok. In an exclusive interview with RBTH, he spoke about the increasingly active role of Thai businesses and investors in Russia, growing educational and cultural ties between the countries and how to increase two-way tourism.
RBTH: How would you describe the state of bilateral relations between Russia and Thailand at the moment?
Itti Ditbanjong: I think they are excellent. We have a 118-year long base for our relations. And recently, our two countries have come much closer because our policies coincide. Russia is giving much more attention to the East and we are looking forward to having good relations with the West. So, it coincides.
The visit of Prime Minister Medvedev (in April 2015) after the meeting with Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha in Naypyidaw last year really boosts our relations and the cooperation between the two countries. During that visit, I was in the entourage of the prime minister. I have the feeling that the prime ministers or our countries understand each other very well and they see eye to eye on how we could promote closer relations in all spheres, but particularly in economic terms.
RBTH: Recently Vietnam signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Would Thailand be interested in a similar arrangement?
I. D.: The offer was made to us during the visit of Prime Minister Medvedev, and after that when we attended the 6th joint commission that we had with Russia here in Moscow. We agreed to look very closely at this. We see its usefulness. But for us, we need to study further on the question. I think that there is a good possibility that we could have a closer cooperation with this group.
RBTH: What are other ways to improve economic relations between Thailand and Russia?
I. D.: We have good tourist, cultural, political and economic relations, but we see room for improvement. During the visit of Prime Minister Medvedev, we agreed to double our trade volume. We signed 10 agreements; 5 inter-governmental agreements and 5 by the private sector. We can see that there is a boost in investment from Thailand to Russia with over $1 billion investment from Thailand.
We’ve also invested in a sugar-refining plant in the Khabarovsk Territory. The agreement worth around $250 million was signed in Vladivostok recently. It is a joint venture between a private Thai enterprise and the local government. It is a very important step and we can see more Thai investors going to the Russian Far East, because it is a very exciting area for cooperation.
RBTH: Do Thai businesses see Russia as a safe and lucrative destination for investment?
I. D.: We have investments in a pork farm, in animal feeds and chicken farms. We believe that the potential of the Russian domestic market is feasible. I know that Thai enterprises are planning to invest more. Now, Russia is inviting us to invest more in the service sector, such as hotels. We have recently established the Thai Pattra Center, which is totally Thai-owned and it has a spa, restaurant and a shop that sells food, including fresh fruits and vegetables.
RBTH: Has there been a significant rise in food exports from Thailand to Russia, in the wake of Russian sanctions on western countries?
I. D.: The increase in Russian imports of Thai food products began earlier than that. It’s not because of the sanctions. We intend to provide food security to Russia, and in return Russia provides energy security for Thailand. This was stated during the meeting between our prime minister and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2012 APEC summit in Vladivostok.
Of course, the decision of the Russian Government to diversify the sources of food imports has accelerated trade, particularly the exports of food from Thailand to Russia. But we still import a lot of energy from Russia and have a trade deficit. We’re hoping to reduce the deficit with more food exports.
RBTH: In what ways, can Russia and ASEAN increase cooperation?
I. D.: Within ASEAN, we will become a community this year. Many foreign investors see ASEAN as a huge market with 600 million people. Each country will have its plan of how to use the opportunity of the opening up of ASEAN.
I am sure that Russia will find opportunities in ASEAN. Russia has invested a lot in Vietnam, which is a part of ASEAN. They could expand their investments to Thailand. We are talking about trucks or other machines that could be produced in Thailand.
My personal task is to promote Russian investment in Thailand. I am sure that tourists, some of which are businesspeople are look for opportunities. We have the feeling that Russia was more Euro-centric in the past but the trend is different now. Sometimes Russians don’t invest abroad since they don’t know the region, but now with tourism and more contact between our two countries, there are opportunities. The investment is now minimal but we are looking to have more investment from Russia.
RBTH: What do you think is the biggest challenge that needs to be overcome to increase Russian investment in Thailand?
I. D.: When people think of Thailand, they see Japan, China and other major investors.
They may not know how to compete. They fear that if they go in and compete with Japanese investors, they may have problem. This is my personal feeling. If they know Thailand better, they will see that there are many opportunities for investment. If you invest now, you can have the reach of 600 million people.
Russian investors are more or less into real estate in places like Phuket and Pattaya. We need that, but we need more than that. We need you have very good technology and you can use the resources of Thailand, for example rubber. There is a big Russian company that wants to invest in natural rubber in Thailand.
RBTH: Is there a possibility of increased direct flights between Thailand and Russia, particularly, the Russian Far East?
I. D.: We are already seeing this from the Russian side. There are 2 flights a week from Yakutsk to Bangkok or Phuket since last year. We increased the flight frequencies in the air services agreement signed last year. We increased it to 70 flights a week from 40 flights a week. We have been receiving various requests from Russian airlines to increase flight services from cities such as Vladivostok, Novosibirsk, Yakutsk and Yekaterinburg. That is a good trend.
Thai Airways is trying to revive itself. Given the potential of Russia, I am sure in the future it can be better. Russians go to Thailand not just once. They repeatedly go to Thailand. Some of my embassy staff have been there 10 times and go every year, but this time with the fall in the value of the ruble, they may have to reconsider. But we see the trend of people visiting Thailand not only in winter, but the whole year. During the low season in Thailand, the costs are much less. There is more accommodation and facilities for Russian tourists.
RBTH: How is Thailand looking to increase tourist arrivals from Russia?
I. D.: We understand the situation when it comes to tourists. When they go somewhere they see the costs. We know that there is a decrease not just to Thailand, but to other destinations, and many other countries. We understand the difficulties, so we try and promote tourism to Thailand through the Thai festival in Moscow, which was attended by tens of thousands of people. We organized the Thai Fight in Moscow recently, and also I hosted a meeting of a MICE (meetings, incentives, conferencing, exhibitions) organization from Thailand.
We are certain that the potential is there for tourism. So, even though there was a drop this year, we believe that there must be more than one million Russian tourists to Thailand.
We are trying to promote high-end tourism. MICE and business travellers spend more money in Thailand, and they still have the potential to visit the country outside of traditional resort destination despite the economic difficulties.
RBTH: Are we likely to see more Thai tourists visiting Russia?
I. D.: We have an increasing numbers of Thais coming here. When I arrived here three years ago, it was about 40,000, and now it is about 70,000. This is a high number when you look at outbound tourists from Thailand. Some figures put it at 100,000.
RBTH: What destinations in Russia do Thai tourists prefer? Is it just Moscow and St Petersburg?
I. D.: That’s true. We have been asked by officials in the regions to suggest that Thai tourists visit not only Moscow. We see that they want more Thai tourists there, but the difficulty is that Thai tourists don’t know other destinations. The general public of Thailand does not know much about Russia other than the 2 major cities. When you go to France, you go to Paris and not Lyon. In Italy, it’s always Rome and Milan…
I have visited Sochi, Krasnodar, the Far East, Vladivostok, Yakutsk and Kazan, which are very interesting. But when you’re a tourist, you have a certain budget, and if you go to Moscow and St Petersburg, it’s not so expensive, but places like Kazan are beyond their itinerary.
I suggest to my friends that they should visit more places than just St Petersburg, but only those who come here two or three times start looking for other destinations.
I have spoken to tourism officials in Moscow and told them that you have to promote your country more. It’s our experience that you can earn a lot of income in foreign currency through tourism. But some things need improvements like the signs on the street, maps on the streets, or even in the metros and trains with announcements in English. You can easily get lost in the metro. I use the metro sometimes and I have to count the number of stations and also remember what my destination looks like in Russian letters.
RBTH: But there are some signs in English now…
I. D.: For me, it’s difficult to understand when you pronounce something in Russian and see it in English letters.
RBTH: Are we likely to see an increase in cultural exchanges between the countries?
I. D.: We have a MoU between the ministries of culture of the two countries. I have personally made a point of expanding our cooperation in this area. That is why we set up the Thai festival in Moscow, and I set up Thai rooms in major universities such as the St Petersburg State University, which commemorated the 115th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the countries. We also set up a Thai room at the Moscow State University. We also set up a Thai room at the Urals Federal University in Yekaterinburg. We plan to expand this to Vladivostok. We have made an offer to Kazan, where they will have an ASEAN room.
I have promoted cooperation between universities. Recently Moscow Region State University and Bangkok University signed a cooperation agreement. The Moscow Region State University also signed an agreement with Siam Technology College in the presence of our prime ministers.
Now we have a lot of cultural exchanges. We have a ballet troupe from Novosibirsk performing in Bangkok. When I look at my Russian friends, I feel comfortable and the same way, I think Russians are comfortable with Thais. There is a long-standing friendship between the countries.
RBTH: Do these rooms conduct Thai language classes?
I. D.: Yes. Except in the Urals Federal University. We have Thai classes in the St Petersburg State University. We also organize special events, such as Thai movie screenings.
When I went to Yekaterinburg, I took a Thai boxer with me to demonstrate and have Master Class in Muay Thai. There, they have a very strong Muai Thai federation. We have a Muay Tai Room at the university’s stadium.
RBTH: You are due to go back to Thailand soon. Did you enjoy your time in Russia?
I. D.: Yes, very much. I had a very happy three years and eight months in Russia. I will carry with me, not only fond memories of this big, great country, but post-retirement, I will continue to promote the relations between the two countries.
(This interview was condensed and edited for clarity)
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