Russian tourists are fleeing to Thailand to escape the war in Ukraine or look to move to the Southeast Asian country.
Thailand has become a haven for Russian visitors who are looking to escape Moscow’s war in Ukraine that has now entered its second year.
Visitors are in Thailand but are they fleeing Russia too.
Since Thailand fully reopened its borders and dropped COVID-19 restrictions in October, Russian arrivals have made up the third-largest group of visitors, only behind Malaysia and India, according to government data.
Now thousands of Russians are looking for a new home, fearing economic woes in Russia and a military draft because of the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine.
Thailand has long been a popular holiday destination for Russian tourists. Thailand and Russia are close trading partners and, in 2019, Russia was Thailand’s seventh-largest market for tourism. Thailand has not followed the lead of Western countries and banned Russian visitors.
Russian tourists have taken advantage of that. For the months of October, November and December, Russian arrivals into Thailand were more than 331,000, according to data released by Thailand’s Ministry of Sport and Tourism.
Thousands of those arrivals also have been investing, buying property, or renting long term in Thailand. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a war mobilization in September, so for many wealthy Russians, the sunny shores of Thailand are an easy swap for the prospect of being drafted into the Ukraine conflict.
All male citizens in Russia ages 18–27 are subject to conscription for one year of active-duty military service in the armed forces.
Russia said it had drafted at least 200,000 citizens into Russia's armed forces since Putin ordered a partial mobilization in September.
Amin Ettayeb is a sales manager from Moscow for InDreamsPhuket, a real estate agency on the Thai holiday island of Phuket.
"Over 90% [of our clients] are Russians. In November, when it was the peak of people coming in, people were buying everything," he told VOA.
The family-owned real estate agency has seen a 10% purchase increase since November. Ettayeb said that for the rental market, villas that once went for less than $9,000 per month now go for more than $28,000.
"Rental is totally chaotic right now," Ettayeb said. "Villas were 300,000 baht per month, some of them now are 1 million baht per month, but people still take it."
Despite money not being an issue for some, Ettayeb said not all his clients are looking to stay in Thailand long term.
"Not many people want to permanently leave Russia, they just want to make sure they don’t have to go to war," said Ettayeb. "When things go back to normal, they will most likely go back."
Between November 1 and January 21, more than 233,000 Russians arrived in Phuket, according to data from Phuket International Airport. Last year, Russians bought nearly 40% of all condominiums sold to foreigners in Phuket, according to the Thai Real Estate Information Center, Al Jazeera reported.
Emil Saliani, originally from Ukraine, has lived in Thailand for several years. He works as a property sales agent and a development partner of Wyndham Grand and Natai Beach Resort in Phuket.
"We have a new hotel and one beachfront hotel, and we have almost 100% occupancy. Now we have more than 50% who are Russian who are staying for 10-14 days. There are no problems," Saliani said.
He called the property investment scene a crazy "war market."
"The project[ed] sales to the Russian market is crazy now. November, December, January was super high season, they sold more than the last 10 years. The 'war market' is crazy and the prices are going up by 15 to 20% in sales. The rent, some prices were going up by three or four times."
'It’s like a wild market'
This time last year, thousands of Russian tourists were stranded in Thailand following U.S. and other Western countries’ imposition of sanctions on Russia.
The suspension of Visa and MasterCard credit card services and the removal of Russian banks from the SWIFT financial network saw Russians without accessible funds as the Russian ruble crumbled.
Now, Russia still faces heavy sanctions as the war in Ukraine continues.
"The reason for the investment is because they want to move the money [from Russia]," said Saliani. "It’s a bad situation. They worry about the currency."
The property market in Phuket has become so saturated that there are now unlicensed agents trying to make money, said Saliani.
“Now, anyone can be a property or rental agent, and [charge] a hundred times more," he said. "It’s unbelievable, it’s like a wild market no one can control.”
Local news outlets in Thailand have reported that some Russian visitors also are illegally working as tour guides and taxi drivers in Phuket.
In a Facebook post this month, Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, former president of the Phuket Tourism Association, called for officials to investigate the prospect of Russians illegally working in Thailand.
Russians flock to Koh Phangan
Since Thailand reopened its borders, the island of Koh Phangan also has become popular among Russian visitors trying to escape the war.
Kimberley Baka, a life coach from South Africa who is based on the island, said it feels like there has been a "takeover" in recent months.
Aside from its famous monthly Full Moon beach parties, Koh Phangan is popular with visitors who enjoy the island’s travel community and budget-friendly prices.
Soaring rental prices are forcing people to leave, Baka said.
"We must have messaged 30 different places, most of them were booked out for a year," said Baka. "I inquired about four houses, probably the normal value around 12,000 baht [$345] a month each. One Russian woman had subleased all four of them for an entire year and she’s charging 1,300 baht [$37] per day, so [this adds] up to around 40,000 baht [$1,150] per month [per house]."
"Thai people can’t get a good deal," said Baka. "Many people who have called Koh Phangan home for years are leaving."