Utid Tamwatin, director-general of the Customs Department, was yesterday very upbeat about trade and investment flows in the region, saying the harmonised customs practice has greatly increased trade along the Mekong River and the new road known as R3A.
Utid last week led a mission to inspect the road, which opened last year, linking the northern region of Thailand with Laos and southern China, and the Mekong River transportation route from Jinghong Port in Xishuangbanna to Chiang Khong Port in Chiang Rai.
Construction of a bridge linking Chiang Khong to Houeixay in Laos is expected to start soon after a delay partly caused by the political uncertainty in Thailand.
Imports and exports via the Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen customs checkpoints have surged recently.
Imports from China last year rose 15.27 per cent to Bt133.7 million, while imports from Laos soared 84.7 per cent to Bt741.7 million.
Thailand's exports to Laos last year increased by 96 per cent to Bt1.3 billion and to China by 4 per cent to Bt51.9 million.
Major Thai export items are rubber sheets, diesel, gasoline, orchids, fruit, construction materials and consumer goods. The top imported items are argon gas, fruit, flowers, underwear, lignite, wood and maize.
"The new road and water transport has greatly benefited China," said Niyom Wairatpanij, chairman of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's border trade committee.
Niyom was concerned about the flood of Chinese goods into Thailand due to both infrastructure projects and free-trade agreements. He urged Thai firms to take advantage of improving transportation to ship more to China.
Chutchavarn Sriwachirawat, director of the Xishuangbanna Jinhong Industrial Zone Development Co, suggested that Thai firms producing consumer goods have the potential to sell more to China or relocate their factories to Jinghong.
Chavalit Nimla-or, who won the concession from the Chinese government to operate this industrial park, said about 15 Thai investors have applied for investment in his park, out of a total of 65 applicants. The first phase of the estate would start to operate in May.
According to Chinese customs officials at Jinghong Port, China's three ports along the Mekong, including Kan Lan Pa and Guan Lei, handle about 300,000 tonnes of goods a year. These three ports facilitate commerce among the four riparian countries including Burma.
China has dominated water transportation. More Thai tourists also visit Yunnan via these new routes, according to Tanomsak Servirichyaswat, president of Mae Salong Tour, a local tour operator in Chiang Rai.
Sharing ancient roots with the Dai minority in Yunnan, Thais have flocked to visit people who could understand Thai northern and northeastern dialects, he said.
Chutchavarn, however, complained about the high cost of freight transport along R3A Road, due partly to complicated customs procedures in Laos.