Russian tourists return in large numbers to Thailand on chartered flights

More than 44,000 Russians visited Thailand in October. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK – Russian tourists are once again travelling in large numbers to Thailand via chartered flights and using credit cards issued outside Russia to get around payment difficulties, turbocharging a gradual tourism recovery in Thailand.

More than 44,000 Russians visited Thailand in October, compared with fewer than 10,000 each in the months following the start of the war in Ukraine in February, according to data from the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

The resumption of direct flights between Moscow and Phuket from the end of November is expected to lure more tourists, according to Thai officials.

Chartered flights operated by airlines such as Azur Air and commercial flights from flag carrier Aeroflot have been taking people from Moscow, Novosibirsk and Vladivostok to Bangkok and popular beach destinations such as Pattaya and Phuket, according to the Phuket Tourist Association.

“Russian tourist arrivals are currently ranked first in Phuket,” said Mr Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, the association’s advisory chairman. “The gap of arrivals between Russian and Indian tourists has widened considerably now.”

Around 20 per cent of every 10,000 foreign visitors taking direct flights to Phuket are Russians, Mr Bhummikitti said. The resort island is known for its pristine beaches and national parks.

That is in sharp contrast to the near-complete absence of Russians for about six months after airlines were forced to halt flights, and tourists found it difficult to make payments following the suspension of most Russian banks from the Swift payment system and a plunge in the rouble.

In the absence of Chinese travellers, the largest group of visitors to Thailand before the coronavirus pandemic, the return of Russian tourists is seen as accelerating a recovery in the nation’s tourism industry. And that is key to keeping an economic recovery on track amid growing risks to its trade from a global slowdown.

Russians, whose average length of stay is at least 12 days in Phuket, are using credit cards issued in other countries and cash to pay for trips and shopping, said Mr Bhummikitti.

Most financial transactions are settled in Dubai and other destinations in the Middle East, said Mr Thanet Supornsahasrangsi, president of the Tourism Council of Chon Buri.

Pattaya, a popular beach town some 150km east of Bangkok, is set to see a rush of tourists in the coming months based on advance bookings, said Mr Thanet.

More than 147,000 Russian tourists arrived in Thailand during the first 10 months of 2022. But that is only about a tenth of the 1.5 million who travelled to the country in 2019 and spent US$3.3 billion (S$4.5 billion), becoming the third-highest spenders, according to official data.

Thailand expects to welcome more than 20 million visitors in 2023, double the number in 2022, but only about half of pre-pandemic arrivals. BLOOMBERG

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