[BANGKOK] Thailand will develop a new international commercial airport at an existing naval air base outside the capital, Bangkok, the transport minister said on Wednesday, as the country scrambles to accommodate an influx of tourists.
Thailand's tourism sector makes up about 10 per cent of its economy, which has been recovering steadily since the army seized power in May last year to end months of political unrest.
"We have the intention to develop U-Tapao airport to become another commercial airport to support the increased passengers to land here," Transport Minister Air Chief Marshall Prajin Juntong told reporters.
By 2017, the airport is expected to service 3 million passengers annually, he added, but gave no estimate of the anticipated development costs.
The airport, about 140 km (90 miles) southeast of Bangkok, the capital, is less than an hour's drive away from Pattaya, famed for its beaches.
Its capacity now is around 200,000 passengers each year, mostly arriving by chartered flights from China and Russia, said navy commander-in-chief Admiral Kraisorn Chansuvanich.
The navy would manage the airport, he added, but in case of an excess of flights and passengers, it would turn to Thai Airways International Pcl and Airports of Thailand Pcl , the country's largest airport operator, for help.
Foreign tourists in Thailand in April numbered 2.28 million, drawn mostly from China and Malaysia, up 18.3 per cent from a year earlier.
The World Bank forecasts an increase of up to 3.5 per cent in Thailand's GDP in 2015. Tourism will "really help the economy this year," said the Bank's senior Thailand economist, Kirida Bhaopichitr, along with cheaper oil and public spending.