Thousands of Russian tourists visiting Thailand are currently stranded without accessible funds because of sanctions imposed on Russia amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Thailand usually attracts large numbers of Russian tourists every year, but the Southeast Asian country now has many visitors struggling to pay for accommodations, with some resorting to sleeping in churches and on beaches.
Myriad international sanctions imposed on Moscow are reaching Russians all over the globe after Russia invaded Ukraine last month. The sanctions have affected Russian businesses and led to the cancellation of flights scheduled with Russian airlines.
Russian banks also have been cut off from the global SWIFT system, vital for receiving and sending money, while many visitors have been hard hit by the suspension of Visa and Mastercard services.
Russian family of 6
Oleg, who chose not to disclose his surname, is a teacher living in Thailand. He told VOA he has been helping Russian nationals on the popular holiday island of Koh Samui.
“Now, mainly my helping work is giving information because many people don’t know what to do, they don’t have any idea. Some families ask me what can we do? I told them to go to the embassy in Koh Samui, I explained when and how to go. They said (the embassy) cannot help,” Oleg told VOA.
According to Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), 6,500 Russians remain stranded throughout Thailand, The Associated Press reported last week.
Approximately 2,000 of the stranded Russians are on the island of Koh Samui.
Oleg told VOA that he knows of a family of six that have been sleeping in a church after they were forced to vacate their hotel after they were unable to pay the bill.
“This family is good, very friendly, they have four kids, but the mother and father have a problem. Now a church in Thailand, they tried to help them."
The Thai government is working with the Russian consulate in the country to assist those who are stranded, and there are preliminary indications that shelter and repatriation flights could be offered.
Local reports say that tourism businesses also are looking at other methods of payment to further assist tourists in the country. And to help mitigate the issues in the short term, Russian and Ukrainian tourists in the country can now extend their visas by 30 days and without the usual fee of $56.
Ksenia is a Russian tourist currently visiting Thailand with her husband. She told VOA about the difficulties she has faced because of the sanctions.
“I came with no return ticket, and the flight to Russia now cost more than twice the pre-war price. We did withdraw as much cash as possible while (the) cards were still working, despite the really bad exchange rates. But to buy tickets or book housing the usual way, you still need to have a card.
"Most of my income was in rubles, and the value of it dropped dramatically. Moreover, our cards do not work at all," she added.
She says she is unsure of what to do next. “Not only (have) my travel plans stopped, but my whole life went upside down. I do not want to go back to Russia because I am strongly against this war and do not want to be near people who support it. My heart is with Ukraine,” she added.
Since the invasion began, Ukrainian expats and tourists have demonstrated in Thailand to call for an end to the war. Protests have taken place outside the Russian embassy in the capital of Bangkok and other locations across the country. During one rally in February, several Ukrainians told VOA their families were suffering because of Russia’s onslaught of military attacks.
Thailand’s government has remained neutral on the Russian invasion despite neighboring Southeast Asia countries Singapore and Indonesia condemning the move. That stance is likely caused by the reliance on foreign arrivals from Russia, veteran Thai journalist Pravit Rojanaphruk previously told VOA.
“I think Thailand has good relations with Russia. Russian tourist companies compose a big chunk of Western tourists to Thailand.”
The recent events in Ukraine will come as a blow to Thailand as its economy slowly recovers from the effects of the global pandemic.
Tourism accounted for approximately 11% of Thailand’s gross domestic product, and about 20% of Thais were employed in tourism, according to the Bank of Thailand in 2019. The economy saw a 6.1% decrease in 2020 during coronavirus pandemic restrictions but rebounded in the fourth quarter of 2021 after rising exports and the return of tourist arrivals.
But declining visitors to Thailand from Russia will dent its tourist-crucial economy, according to Stuart McDonald, founder of the travel guide Travelfish.org.
“Thailand needs to re-assess their tourism forecasts to take account of the fact that as long as the invasion of Ukraine continues, the number of Russians visiting the country will be extremely limited and should not be considered material to the country’s tourism bottom line for 2022,” the travel publisher told VOA.
Russian visitors accounted for the largest bloc of arrivals in February with 17,599 arrivals, according to the Public Health Ministry. Since the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, their numbers have rapidly declined.
“While dwarfed by the China market, pre-pandemic Russian inbound tourists were the largest inbound group to Thailand from Europe in 2018. While their numbers have fluctuated somewhat over the years, they have remained an important stream for Thailand’s tourism economy,” McDonald added.