Tensions are mounting at a popular tourist destination in Thailand thanks to a massive increase in the number of Russians moving there to escape being drafted into fighting the war in Ukraine, according to a report.
Locals in the southern province of Phuket are now complaining that the Russian arrivals have created a Russian-only economy on the island, allegedly taking jobs away from locals and fueling an increase in property prices that makes life harder for renters.
Over 400,000 Russians arrived in Phuket between January and July this year, according to Al Jazeera, which is twice the number of visitors recorded before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. Many have bought properties on the island, set up businesses, and acquired long stay visas in order to avoid being conscripted at home.
The Thai Real Estate Association said Russians were the leading international buyers of property in Phuket last year, and that sales to Russians jumped 68 percent in the first quarter of 2023 compared with the same period in 2022, the Guardian reports.
But their presence in Thailand hasn’t been welcomed by everyone, with some residents complaining that Russian-only businesses have started emerging, allegedly staffed by people working illegally and run through Russian language apps. Some reports have also said Russian sex workers serving mostly Russian customers have started operating in the province’s main nightlife areas.
Prayut Thongmusik, the president of the Phuket van drivers’ club which represents 200 tourist minibus operators, told Al Jazeera that some Russians “came to run the whole tourism business.” “They drive personal vehicles that have not been registered with the Thai transport department as service vehicles, picking up tourists who book them through a Russian app, offering nearly 20 percent cheaper fees than us,” Thongmusik was quoted as saying. “They make sure all the roubles stay with the Russians.”
As well as economic grievances, residents have also been concerned and angered by criminality connected with the huge influx of Russians. Local laws dictate that certain occupations can only be carried out by Thai nationals, but these restrictions aren’t always observed.
“We arrested three Russian nationals who opened a hair salon after we got a complaint lodged by a Thai citizen,” Lieutenant Colonel Thongchai Matitam said. “We charged them with breaking the law by doing the jobs reserved for Thais only.”
More overt criminality has been reported too, including the shooting of a Russian businessman in June and the arrest of a Russian man allegedly linked to a phone scam gang running out of Cambodia. Local media reported that Russians accounted for most of the criminal charges applied to foreigners in Phuket in the first three months of 2023.
Sergey Malinin, a Russian expat and tour operator who has lived in Thailand for 25 years, said locals’ animus may be misdirected, and that many criminals may just be being confused with Russians. “To Thai people, all of them are Russians even though they may be Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Georgians,” he told Al Jazeera. Malinin added that some Russians only become criminals in Thailand owing to the restrictive laws for foreign workers, in which “the only way to stay is to break the law.”