Thailand approves US$9b airport project by Bangkok's skytrain operator

[BANGKOK] Thailand's Cabinet on Tuesday approved a US$9 billion bid from a consortium led by Bangkok's billionaire skytrain operator to develop an airport in its southeastern coast, which the kingdom hopes will transform into an economic and tech hub.

Located near resort town Pattaya, U Tapao airport is one of the infrastructure centrepieces for Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC), an ambitious 1.7 trillion baht (S$75.4 billion) scheme seeking to attract investment from industries like auto and tech manufacturing.

BTS Group Holdings, which operates Bangkok's skytrain and is owned by billionaire Keeree Kanjanapas, led a consortium of companies approved to develop the "Eastern Airport City" project.

They were chosen "as the winner because it proposed the best guarantee and returns, rent and revenue-sharing to the government", said the Cabinet in a statement after their meeting Tuesday.

Bangkok Airways - owned by Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth, who Forbes lists as among the kingdom's richest - is part of the consortium, as well as construction firm Sino-Thai Engineering and Tokyo's Narita International Airport.

The 290 billion baht project will include a new terminal, an air cargo centre, and an aviation repair and maintenance site, according to official EEC documents.

Primarily used as a navy airport, U Tapao is touted by the EEC as having the potential to be transformed into a tourist hub, due to its proximity to Pattaya.

But the popular beach town has gone dark - just like much of tourism-reliant Thailand - as the coronavirus has halted global travel and hammered the kingdom's flagging economy.

The parliament on Sunday approved a record near-US$60 billion stimulus package to ease the impacts of the virus, which has left millions unemployed.

The EEC project has attracted criticisms in the past for a lack of transparency.

Critics say it was ushered in by an army-led junta regime linked to business interests.

But the government has boasted of the project's economic returns, and pointed to infrastructure projects bolstering the scheme as an overall benefit for the country.

Last year, the multi-billion-dollar construction of a high-speed rail link was approved for a consortium led by Thailand's largest conglomerate CP Group.

It is expected to connect passengers from Bangkok's two major airports to U Tapao in under an hour.



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