BANGKOK (VOA) — Starting next month, on November 1, Thailand will allow Russian tourists to stay visa-free for up to 90 days. The move comes as tourists from the country have had increasingly few options for travel, given Moscow’s war on Ukraine, the impact of sanctions, travel restrictions, and a weakening ruble.
News that Thailand was extending visa-free stays from 30 to 90 days came late last week just before the country’s Prime Minister Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Russian President Vladimir Putin met on the sidelines of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing last week.
Thailand has already seen nearly one million tourists from Russia this year and tourism officials hope that the extension of visa free status will help boost the number coming to the sunny Southeast Asian country during peak season from November to March.
Igor Shchedrov is the general manager at Svoi Travel, a Thailand-based travel agency. More than half of his customers are from Russia.
“The rate for ruble, things are more expensive, like the flight tickets. They don’t have a lot of choices for destinations when traveling because Europe closed [for Russian tourists]. They have some trouble with Visa and Mastercard, but now they can use UnionPay, a Chinese system, and a lot of customers pay by cash,” he told VOA.
Shchedrov said the move will help boost business, but it may take time for word of the change to spread.
“They have a lot of fake news. Some people don’t believe it is for 90 days,” he added.
Olga Polyakova, a Russian tourist from Moscow, is currently in Phuket and admits that travel has become more expensive.
“Now there’s not a good rate for the [Russian] ruble, and now really traveling to foreign countries is more expensive than before, but traveling is an important part of my life,” she told VOA.
Despite sanctions, the Kremlin has continued doing business with Thailand. Thailand chose to abstain from a U.N. vote condemning Russia last year for its so-called annexation of four territories in Ukraine.
Last year, Thailand became a haven for Russian visitors, with many avoiding Moscow’s military drafts to go and fight in Ukraine. But from what Shchedrov can see, the situation is different today.
“One year ago, we had a situation where … a very high volume of people were running away from [military] mobilization. The first time was such a shock to the citizens of Russia, but now time has passed, they saw nothing happened, nobody catches them on the street [to be drafted],” he added.
Nithee Seeprae, the deputy governor for Marketing Communications at the Tourism Authority Thailand, told VOA the decision to expand Russian tourist visas was based on high demand.
“Most of them prefer to stay longer. So, to make it easy for everyone, we expanded the visa,” he said.
Competition heats up
Gary Bowerman, a tourism analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, said Thailand is trying to attract more Russian tourists because the region has become increasingly competitive.
“Russia will deliver around 1 million tourists to Thailand in 2023 and is a top 5 source market. But earlier this year, a lot of Russian tourists visiting Thailand also spent time in competitor destinations like Bali and Vietnam. Thailand hopes that by extending the welcome, more Russian tourists will spend more time [and money] exploring more of the country,” he told VOA.
“Extending the length of stay for Russian tourists during the winter season makes sense. It shows how competitive tourism is becoming amongst Southeast Asian nations for the upcoming peak season,” he added.
With peak season beginning in November, hotels in the popular holiday island Phuket are also already preparing for an influx of Russian visitors.
“At the moment we remain positive about the Russian market,” Ranjeet Viswanathan, the director of sales and marketing at the Hyatt Regency Phuket Resort, told VOA.
“The fact that Aeroflot has increased its number of flights to Phuket gives me hope that we will see a strong Russian market this winter, not only are they flying direct flights from Moscow to Phuket, but also from Novosibirsk, Khabarovsk, Vladivostok and Krasnoyarsk, twice a week,” he added.
Increasing the length of stay for Russian tourists came before Thailand’s Prime Minister Srettha met with Putin at the Belt and Road Initiative forum in Beijing last week.
Both discussed increasing trade and cultural ties between Thailand and Russia, while Srettha praised their “long-standing close relationship” and invited Putin for a visit to the Southeast Asian country.
พบท่านวลาดิเมียร์ ปูติน ประธานาธิบดีรัสเซีย เป็นครั้งแรกครับ แต่เราต่างรู้สึกประทับใจและชื่นชมในความสัมพันธ์อันใกล้ชิดยาวนานของทั้ง 2 ประเทศ โดยนักท่องเที่ยวรัสเซียเดินทางมาท่องเที่ยวประเทศไทยมากกว่า 1 ล้านคน ซึ่งครม.เพิ่งมีมติเพิ่มวันพำนักให้นักท่องเที่ยวชาวรัสเซียจาก 30 วันเป็น… pic.twitter.com/c48vQHQ1qJ
— Srettha Thavisin (@Thavisin) October 17, 2023
But after Srettha posted a photo with Putin on X, formerly Twitter, it gained a mixed reaction on the social media platform.
Putin ordered Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine 18 months ago. Russia was then hit with western sanctions, something which has impacted the Russian economy while tourists overseas have been unable to pay using western payment services.
As for Thailand welcoming Russian business, experts say the relations between Bangkok and Moscow remain strong.
Mark S. Cogan, associate professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Kansai University, Japan, told VOA that the 90-day visa extensions are “small potatoes.”
“Srettha has to think about a larger picture, where Russian investment in tourism and agriculture, speed up bilateral trade and set up larger investments down the road through the Joint Commission on Bilateral Cooperation, which needs revival after a period of COVID-related disruption,” Cogan said.