Since taking up his post as ambassador in July 2018, HE Lorenzo Galanti has been able to see Thailand before Covid19, during and now as the country begins to emerge from the restrictions cause by the pandemic. Recently, Elite+ was invited to the Embassy of Italy at the All Seasons Place to discuss Italian-Thai relations and opportunities for Thais and Italians alike.
To begin, could you tell us a little about yourself and your career as a diplomat?
I began dreaming about being a diplomat when I was at university in Florence and was studying political science and international relations. None in my family had been a diplomat. My father was an entrepreneur and my mother, who is German, a translator, which made me feel I had some kind of international background, a major motivating factor for me in choosing this career.
Soon finishing university, at the age of 25 I succeeded in the competitive examination for the foreign service. Over the course of my career, I served in Syria and Senegal, where the Italian Embassy covered six West African countries, and later in Washington DC. Thailand is my first posting as an ambassador, and I am also accredited to Cambodia and Laos.
Now, could you give us some background on Italian-Thai diplomatic relations?
This year marks the 152nd anniversary of the treaty that established diplomatic relations between the then Kingdom of Italy and the Kingdom of Siam, but this long-standing friendship actually goes back even further. We have a much-consolidated tradition of trade and cultural interaction between our two countries and people. Yet after the treaty signing, relations between Italy and Thailand grew much stronger. Moreover, King Mongkut, King Chulalongkorn and King Vajiravudh were all interested in bringing Italian artists and architects to Thailand. Therefore, there are many important Italian-designed of decorated buildings and monuments in Bangkok and Thailand. I would say that the cultural footprint of Italians here is quite impressive.
Silpa Bhirasri, Corrado Feroci by his Italian name, was the Italian co-founder of Silpakorn University and made many contributions to Thai modern art. He designed the relief sculptures of Democracy Monument and the statue of Rama VI at Lumphini Park, to name just two of his works, and his birthday is celebrated every year on the 15th of September at Silpakorn University with a number of ceremonies and initiatives.
Bilateral ties are also rooted in trade and investments. Last year, our trade reached 3 billion euro. Of course, this year, our exchanges are suffering from the impact of Covid-19, so our trade value has decreased below what we originally predicted. But I am confident that it will soon bounce back.
Tourism has always been another important way for the people of our two countries to understand and learn more about each other. Last year, 165,000 Italian tourists visited Thailand and I about 70,000 Thai tourists travelled to Italy. Almost every fellow Italian I met before coming here had visited Thailand at least once, and almost all Thai people that I meet have been to Italy at least once. I now hear from so many Italians that they are looking forward to coming back to Thailand as soon as possible, and many of my Thai friends are longing to go to Italy as soon as possible, too. Therefore, I am confident that the tourism pattern between Thailand and Italy will eventually come back.
Thais love Italian food. It is probably one of the most popular foreign cuisines here. Is the embassy involved in any of its promotion?
Food is a defining element of our culture. Like in Thailand, Italian cuisine is very diverse and linked to our regions, cities and towns. This diversity has always attracted Thai people, and I'm delighted to see how Thai people enjoy Italian cuisine. There are up to 2,000 Italian restaurants in Thailand, many of them in Bangkok. Some are very authentic in taste, serving exactly the same dishes as you would find in Italy. So, I guess food is a part of our soft power, very much like it is for Thailand.
To promote the variety of Italian cuisine and Italian food products, every year we organize a food festival during “The Week of Italian Cuisine in the World” in the 3rd week of November. This year, we plan to organize several events to promote authentic Italian cuisine and wines, linked to different territories and to a healthy diet and lifestyle.
How big would you say is the Italian community here and what businesses are they involved in?
There are around 6,000 Italians living in Thailand registered with the embassy. Our estimation is that under normal circumstances, the Italian community in Thailand reaches about 10,000 people. Currently, as many left in the early phase of Covid-19, the numbers are lower. They mainly work in Italian investments present in Thailand, in the hospitality industry, own or manage restaurants. We are fortunate to have quite a large and popular community of Italian chefs. Other fellow Italians are in working in business and legal consultancy, or are retirees who choose Thailand for its good healthcare system, its climate and its wonderful people.
When it comes to business and trade, which sectors do you feel have been the most important for the two countries?
The exports Italy is best known for are what we call the ‘’3Fs’’: food, fashion and furniture. They perfectly represent Italy’s lifestyle, design and quest for beauty. But along with these sectors, there are investment goods and technology-intensive goods. Italy is the second largest manufacturing country in the European Union. A big portion of our exports to Thailand is industrial machinery, followed by chemical products, pharmaceuticals, vehicles. In the post-COVID-19 context, we will see increased emphasis on digital products, artificial intelligence and robotics.
As far as Thai exports are concerned, Italy imports electric and electronic devices, agricultural products, rubber products and vehicles, and I would say our trade is quite balanced.
Beyond trade, our relations with Thailand focus on a broad spectrum of topics such as sustainability and climate change. We both are committed in supporting multilateralism and we collaborate on several issues at the United Nations and other international fora. In 2021 Italy will chair the G20 and co-chair the COP26 – the Conference of the parties to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change – together with the United Kingdom. Our focus for the G20 will revolve around “People, Planet, Prosperity”: a holistic approach towards the planet and its population, working towards the goal of a sustainable, green and truly inclusive recovery, with a special attention to SMEs. In a regional perspective, particularly looking at ASEAN, Italy is engaged in sustainability, security, health, trade and investment, connectivity. The endorsement by ASEAN of Italy’s candidature as development partner last September is based on these key areas of collaboration. This partnership reflects the growing engagement of Italy with ASEAN, and we look forward to continuing to work with all member states and the Secretariat.
What Italian companies have invested in Thailand, and are there any Thai companies investing in your country?
Ducati produces its amazing motorcycles in Rayong since 2010. Also in Rayong, Danieli Thailand produces turnkey plants for the metal industry, from iron ore to all the different finished products. Cavagna Group, a world-leading manufacturer of equipment and components for controlling compressed gases, has plants in Thailand. Looking at infrastructures, the Italian gas company SAIPEM is working on two major energy projects, while the Italian railway group Ferrovie dello Stato will provide its expertise to the high-speed rail project linking 3 airports and the Eastern Economic Corridor.
Thai investments in Italy are quite substantial. The largest one is by Central Group, which has acquired the historic Italian department store chain La Rinascente. Meanwhile, Thai Union bought an Italian canned tuna brand; Minor Group owns some hotels through NH, and others have been investing in real estate.
What advice would you give to Thai entrepreneurs interested in partnering with an Italian company or investing in Italy?
Italy has many interesting companies and brands in various sectors, not only in luxury, but also in technology-intensive sectors. Real estate is interesting too, as foreigners are allowed to own property in Italy. One can actually find bargain prices on many attractive properties right now. Furthermore, our Government facilitates visas for entrepreneurs who invest above a certain threshold.
Italy is also well known for its small and medium enterprises, the backbone of our economy, and among these SMEs there are many interesting Italian start-ups. Some of those SMEs are actually global leaders in their own niche. I think it makes a lot of sense for Thai investors to look at these success stories. And yes, there are institutions in Italy ready to help foreign investors identify attractive opportunities. At the embassy and the Italian trade agency in Bangkok we are prepared to facilitate the contacts. The Italy-Thai Chamber of Commerce does an excellent job. Last but not least, the Italy-Thailand Business Forum, created in 2015, has grown into a key player in facilitating business ventures between the two countries.
As Thailand's restrictions have eased, do you have plans to promote Italy and Italian culture, and could you tell us something about these?
The Italian Festival in Thailand is an all-year program of events covering all forms of arts: classical music, jazz, film, architecture, design, photography and much more. This year, because of Covid-19, we had to postpone a number of activities.
However, we are able to hold our Italian Film Festival in the second half of October, which is dedicated to Federico Fellini, the great Italian movie director, winner of several Oscars, who would have turned 100 this year. So, as we're celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fellini around the world, Thailand is in fact the only country where we could organize an in-person event. We screen classic movies by Fellini at the Samyan Cinema Art House along with some Italian films that reflect the most recent trends in moviemaking. Our FilmFest also includes an exhibition of Fellini’s drawings – he was also a cartoonist -- and lithographs about Fellini by David Lynch.
We are also joining the second Bangkok Arts Biennale, or BAB 2020, where two Italian artists will display their work and one Italian will serve as an artistic director. They will not be here in person, but will speak through digital events and send their works.
Another event we are organizing is the Week of Italian cuisine in the world, which will take place on the fourth week of November. It will include an opening event and promotions in department stores and special menus at partnering restaurants.
As people begin to travel, can you explain what types of restrictions and quarantine regulations Italy has imposed for people travelling to Italy?
Visitors must still self-quarantine for 14 days when they arrive in Italy and they are required to report their temperature and if they have any symptoms. Thai nationals wishing to return to Thailand have to contact the Royal Thai embassy to register. Then, once back, they have to quarantine for two weeks.
Currently, new Covid-19 cases in Italy are increasing and the Government is adopting new measures to contain the spreading spread of the virus. What we are seeing is actually a second wave of infections, but partly different from the first. In the second wave, we now have about 500,000 active cases, many of them asymptomatic. We are conducting more than 200,000 tests per day, and it is through extensive testing that we are able to find these asymptomatic cases, who then must self-quarantine. Right now, the number of hospitalized persons with symptoms and patients in ICUs is increasing in certain areas of the country, which are subject to measures that are close to the lockdown that was in force in March and April. We are not seeing the end of it yet.
How much is Italy involved in developing a Covid-19 vaccine or are you planning to import one, and have you formulated a policy for its distribution?
Italy has invested in a vaccine with the Anglo Dutch company AstraZeneca, which seems to be one of the most promising for Europe. Italy is part of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, is a groundbreaking global collaboration to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. Italy has also pledged 100 million euro to make a vaccine available for developing countries. We believe that the vaccine should be for the common good of all mankind. No one is safe until everyone is safe. It is only through a multilateral effort that we will be able to overcome the pandemic. It is essential that we collaborate in research, in vaccine production and then making sure that the vaccine is accessible to all countries, with priority to vulnerable categories and those who work in the health sector, medical doctors and nurses. These will be the first categories that the Italian government will look at once a vaccine is available.
Now, turning back to Thailand, since coming here, what has impressed you most about Thailand and Bangkok?
When I walked into my office for the first time, I was amazed at the view that from the 40th floor of the CRC tower. These tall buildings represent the advancement of Thailand 4.0. I think Thailand is well aware of global trends and actively looks into the future to devise possible scenarios and adapt its strategies. At the same time, however, Thailand is blessed by geography as a fertile land with an abundance of food. The memory of the rural life, its rhythms and rituals, is still very much present in the minds and hearts of the Thai people. I was in Khao Yai recently, walking with Rangers from the national park who explained to my son and me all the various herbs and plants we encountered, and their properties: an incredible richness in biodiversity that translates into food and healthy dietary supplements meant to strengthen one’s immune system. So, the urban hypermodern uniquely coexists with the rural tradition.
Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
We ought to be optimistic about the future. We will be able to travel again and enjoy our respective countries and cultures. In the meantime, it is very important that we keep nurturing our friendship. Italy and Thailand have so many similarities that our friendship comes easy, and this is something that we should value. Yes, there will be structural changes in the post-Covid world and a new normal will eventually take shape in many respects, but our friendship, based on solid people-to-people relations, remains the foundation to build upon for the future.