Russian tourists have been flocking to Thailand since pandemic travel restrictions were eased, with many choosing to invest in the kingdom's real estate sector after an extended holiday in the country.
Since January, over 370,000 Russian tourists have visited the country, according to Pol Maj Gen Phanthana Nutchanart, deputy commander of the Immigration Bureau -- a sharp increase compared to last year, which only saw about 435,000 Russians visit the country in the entire year.
Despite the influx, there has been no indication that Russian criminal figures have snuck into the country through illegal channels, he told the Bangkok Post, noting most legal issues involving Russian citizens in Thailand were minor offences, such as traffic violations.
No 'mafia' here
Pol Maj Gen Phanthana said authorities in Phuket, Koh Samui in Surat Thani and Pattaya -- tourism hotspots known to be popular among Russian visitors -- have not detected the presence of any Russian citizens who might pose a threat to national security.
"There are those who have been convicted for petty offences, such as shoplifting and traffic violations, but they are not that big a problem. Those with serious criminal records, however, are barred from entering the country," he said.
According to the IB deputy commander, while some Russians are choosing to stay in Thailand to avoid fallout from the war in Ukraine, others may have a different reason to visit.
Under the law, Pol Maj Gen Phanthana, accommodation providers must notify their local immigration office of any foreigners staying there. "This will help police find those who are wanted in other countries," he said.
Pol Lt Gen Sukhun Prommayon, commissioner of the Tourist Police Bureau (TPB), said no Russian organised crime rings have been detected amid the recent influx of visitors.
"Most Russians visiting Thailand are affluent holidaymakers and prefer to visit seaside provinces," he said. "Large numbers of tourists will also benefit the economy."
Real estate windfall
Phatthanan Pisutwimol, president of the Phuket Real Estate Association (P-REA), said the real estate business in Phuket has recovered quickly as the island is popular with foreign tourists looking to escape the cold weather in the Northern Hemisphere.
He said the prospects for pool villas and horizontal property projects are improving while condos are also popular among foreigners looking to invest.
"Russians are visiting Phuket in large numbers, which has helped the tourism sector here. They stay between one week and up to six months and most prefer to rent pool villas," he said.
"Many want to buy and live in pool villas rather than renting them. The most popular zones are tambon Choengtalay [in Thalang district], tambon Kamala [in Kathu district], and tambon Rawai in Muang district.
"Many Russian investors have also bought and resold them, or rented them out to others,'' Mr Phatthanan said.
"Spending by Russian tourists has boosted the local economy in Phuket. Local tourism-related businesses hit by Covid are making a quick recovery,'' he said.
Some Russians also have bought cars and motorcycles and rented them to their compatriots.
Boon Yongsakul, vice-president of the P-REA, said Phuket's sea and beaches are popular among Russian tourists.
Many Russian families are affluent and can afford to rent houses in the island province for two to three months rather than condos which have limited space, he said.
"Since the Russians arrived, rental homes on the island are almost fully occupied. This also benefits hotel maids, gardeners, swimming pool cleaners, and restaurants.
"The downside is that large numbers of foreign arrivals may lead to traffic congestion, accidents, and petty law violations,'' he said.
Mr Boon also said Russian investors are seeking to invest in the real estate sector in Phuket as some have lived there for several years and are familiar with the law in Thailand.
Some are interested in investing in horizontal property projects, condos, and mixed-use property projects, he said.
Escaping bad weather
Bhunanan Patanasin, president of the Pattaya Business and Tourism Association, said about 300 Russians were arriving every day after Thailand reopened its borders and eased travel restrictions late last year, and since then the number has increased to 500-700.
Many Russian tourists spend about 10-20 days in Pattaya, he said.
"Jomtien Beach and Wong Amat Beach are full of Russian tourists. They are everywhere in Pattaya. Most tourists in Pattaya are Russians,'' he said.
"Russian tourists spend an estimated 3,000-5,000 baht each per day in Pattaya. Most spend time on beaches and go shopping. Many signs in Russian are erected in Pattaya,'' he said.
Many Russian tourists also stay and rent condos in Pattaya for extended periods, Mr Bhunanan said, adding that no Russian mafia have been found in Pattaya as authorities have stepped up crackdowns on illegal activities.
He said the number of Russian tourists will fall after this month or April as many will return home and they will be replaced with tourists from China and India, Mr Bhunanan said.
He said the main reason for Russians visiting Thailand is because they want to escape the cold weather in their country while the Russia-Ukraine war has little bearing.
"I organised a roadshow to promote Thai tourism in Moscow, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan and the war did not have any impact.
"Russia is a huge country and the fighting scenes are far away and have little impact on other parts of the country,'' he said.
Damrongkiat Pinitkarn, secretary to the Entertainment & Tourism Association of Pattaya City, said Russians were among the first group of foreign visitors to return to Thailand after the country reopened.
"According to immigration officers in February, Russians were the third largest group of foreign visitors to Thailand,'' he said.
"They come in family groups to escape the cold weather and can afford to pay travel and accommodation expenses and Thailand can respond to their needs,'' he said.
Chayapol Intarasupha, the chief of Koh Samui district in Surat Thani, said more than 100,000 foreigners visited Koh Samui in January, generating more than 1.3 billion baht in income. Russians were the largest group of foreign tourists, he said.
Ratchaporn Poolsawad, chairman of the Tourism Association of Koh Samui, said Russian investors have invested in real estate businesses, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops and other tourism-related businesses in Koh Samui and Koh Phangan in Surat Thani.
"Their businesses are beginning to hurt Thai-owned businesses as they snatch foreign customers away,'' Mr Ratchaporn said.
In January, about 8,885 Russian tourists visited Koh Samui, the largest number among foreign tourists.