The picturesque island of Phuket has seen a significant uptick in Russian migrants, leading to mounting tensions among the local population who feel their livelihoods are threatened.
Between January and July of this year alone, over 400,000 Russians have visited Phuket, according to local authorities. This figure is twice the number recorded prior to Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. A sizable portion of these visitors have chosen to extend their stay, acquiring long-term visas, buying properties, and setting up businesses. Their primary intent appears to be to flee the economic instability and potential conscription back home, following Russia’s aggressive stance in Ukraine.
This mass migration culminated in a diplomatic visit in July, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov inaugurating a new consulate in Phuket to accommodate the influx of his compatriots.
Yet, the repercussions of this migration are manifold. The once harmonious blend of tourism and local life in Phuket is undergoing rapid change. Property prices on the island have skyrocketed. While this boom has financially benefited Thai property owners and real estate agents, it has made renting unaffordable for many others.
Furthermore, the establishment of Russian-centric businesses has been a major point of contention. These businesses, spanning sectors from hair salons to taxi services, primarily cater to Russian clientele and often operate through Russian-language applications. Allegedly, many of these businesses employ individuals without the proper work permits.
Adding to the contention, there have been reports of Russian sex workers setting up shop in Phuket’s nightlife areas, largely catering to Russian visitors. Prayut Thongmusik, the president of the Phuket van drivers’ club, expressed his concerns to Al Jazeera, stating that Russian taxi services, often booked via Russian apps, undercut local prices by nearly 20%, effectively diverting a significant portion of the tourism revenue away from the locals.
Online, the sentiment echoes Thongmusik’s concerns. Local Facebook pages are rife with posts that capture the anxiety of Thai citizens fearing for their jobs. There is growing speculation that many Thai-owned tourist businesses may only be Thai on paper, with Russian investors pulling the strings behind the scenes.
The local police, in response to the unrest, arrested several illegal workers last month, including three Russians who had set up a hair salon, after a complaint from a local.
Crime linked to the Russian influx is also a concern. Notable incidents include the arrest of a Kazakh individual in connection to the shooting of Russian businessman Dmitry Aleynikov and the detention of a Russian man in Koh Samui with alleged ties to Cambodian scammers. Despite these issues, authorities emphasize that most Russians in Phuket are law-abiding.
Russian expatriate Sergey Malinin, who has been in Thailand for a quarter-century, voiced concerns over potential nationality-based profiling. To him, the legal work restrictions in Thailand may be driving some Russians to commit crimes. Despite the negative perceptions, he highlighted the strengthening cultural and economic ties between Russia and Thailand.
Economically, Russians are indeed contributing substantially to Phuket, especially in the luxury sector. Simpsonmarine Phuket, a luxury boat vendor, reports a 10-20% rise in Russian clientele since the Ukraine conflict began. Real estate is also benefiting, with prices soaring as Russians invest in Phuket’s limited land.
However, the overarching sentiment remains one of unease. As tensions rise and the local economy undergoes rapid changes, the paradise island of Phuket grapples with the challenges and opportunities brought about by the Russian migration wave.