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Thai PM makes resort island first visit, seeks tourism boost

FILE PHOTO: Pheu Thai's Srettha Thavisin gestures at the party headquarters in Bangkok

By Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgumpanat

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand's new Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin visited the resort island of Phuket on Friday, a first official trip to underline plans to shore-up economic recovery by bolstering tourism, a key driver of growth.

Thailand's economy expanded 1.8% year-on-year in the April-June period and 0.2% on the quarter, slowing sharply from the previous three months as its key exports sector slumped on weak global demand. The state planning agency has since cut its growth projection to a 2.5% to 3.0% range from 2.7% to 3.7%.

Tourism remains a bright spot, however, with the government aiming to reach about 29 million foreign visitors this year, nearly three-quarters of the record number received in pre-pandemic 2019, who spent 1.91 trillion baht ($54.40 billion).

Nearly 11 million of those were from China that year.

"Right now only 30% of Chinese tourists have returned," Srettha, a property mogul, told reporters.

"Chinese tourists are an important part. China is slowing, they don't encourage outbound tourism, so we need to make it easier for people to come to our country," he said, suggesting loosening visa requirements.

Political newcomer Srettha was president of a real estate firm just a few months ago and became prime minister on Tuesday after winning with ease in a parliamentary vote.

He must put together a cabinet from a crowded 11-party alliance that includes bitter rivals of his Pheu Thai Party, which will lead its fifth government in two decades. Three of those were topped by coups or courts.

Srettha on X, formerly Twitter, said he aims to boost tourism income next year to 3.3 trillion baht ($93.99 billion)

He also said his government would look at long-term plans to expand airport infrastructure in popular destinations like Bangkok, Phuket and Chiang Mai.

He has met airport operators in Bangkok and Phuket and was due to meet with tourism business operators and visit some tourism sites in Phangnga and in Phuket, which draws about a quarter or Thailand's annual visitors.

Srettha said he expects his cabinet to be finalised over the next week. The government will then have to deliver policy objectives to a joint session of parliament before starting work, likely in late September.

($1 = 35.1100 baht)

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thepgupmanat; Editing by Martin Petty)