Bangkok/Pattaya, Thailand – Since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a growing number of Russians have looked to Thailand as their ticket to a new life.
Tens of thousands of Russians hoping to avoid the threat of conscription and the economic ravages of the war have travelled to the kingdom in the year since the invasion, many of them seeking a new home.
In Phuket, a popular resort island, Russians are buying off-plan condos with half a million dollars or more to facilitate their relocation or provide a landing pad for a future time when they may feel forced to leave their homeland.
Between November 1, 2022, and January 21, 2023, more than 233,000 Russians arrived in Phuket, according to data from Phuket International Airport, making them the biggest group of visitors by far.
Phuket has long been a favourite escape from the harsh Russian winter but property sales have surged since President Vladimir Putin in September ordered Moscow’s first wartime mobilisation since World War Two, suggesting many arrivals are intent on staying well beyond the length of a typical holiday.
“My clients are mostly young, 30-35… they’re wealthy, high-budget clients,” Sofia Malygaevareal, a real estate agent in Phuket who originally hails from Russia, told Al Jazeera.
“A lot of people have decided to move to Phuket from three to six months… to one year.”
To stay on the idyllic island, Russian arrivals need homes, schools, jobs and visas – which takes time in Thailand, where obtaining long-term residency rights can be difficult to achieve.
For many of the newcomers determined to swap a home on a war footing for a life in the Thai sunshine, money is not a problem. Realtors in Russian-dominated areas of the island say the influx of wealthy visitors, fuelled by the growing realisation the war has no end in sight as it enters its second year, has driven prices up to record levels.
Luxury condos that until recently were available to rent for about $1,000 a month can now go for three times that. Meanwhile, extravagant villas on the market for $6,000 or more are booked out up to a year in advance.
The buyers’ market is similarly red hot. In 2022, Russians bought nearly 40 percent of all condominiums sold to foreigners in Phuket, according to the Thai Real Estate Information Center (REIC). Russians’ purchases amounted to $25m in sales – several times the amount spent by Chinese nationals, the next largest group of buys, according to the REIC.
Some buyers have spent upwards of $500,000 on luxury off-plan homes by the sea, according to local real estate agents.
“The situation has changed at home,” Malygaevareal said, referring to the tough economic conditions in Russia. “People who have money come abroad and are ready to pay money for international school, which costs less than in Moscow.”
A Russian travel agent in Phuket, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, said some Russians have arrived on one-way tickets and tourist visas. “[They] just do not go home… they are here to get away from conscription.”
The mass influx of Russians is also reflected in other popular tourist areas such as Koh Samui, Thailand’s second-biggest island, and the eastern seaboard resort of Pattaya, where there has been a sizeable Russian community concentrated in the beach town of Jomtien for years.
“More Russians have moved to Pattaya since October. They’re mostly young couples who fear for their safety,” Mikhail Ilyin, the head priest of the All Saints Russian Orthodox Church in Pattaya, told Al Jazeera.
But the impact of Putin’s invasion works both ways.
Dar, a Thai masseuse in her 40s, said she left her job at a high-end spa in Moscow as the rouble collapsed and her salary – which was generous by Thai standards – plummeted in value. Dar has found new work in Jomtien, where her rare language skills win over repeat Russian clients.
“The women tell me they are desperate to get their husbands, boyfriends or children to come over here to stay,” she said, asking to be referred to by only her first name. “So they come over first and find houses and try to make visas for their men.”
Visas, though, are not as easy to obtain as they used to be after a major scandal was uncovered in November involving Thai immigration police helping the Chinese mafia bring thousands of people into Thailand through fake work and volunteer schemes.
That means Russians who can afford it are having to apply for expensive property ownership visas known as the “Elite Card”, which allows a long-term stay for a family for approximately $25,000.
“It’s not as easy as they think to do long-term living here,” said IIyin, the priest. “Some are thinking of returning as they run out of options.”
The flow of Russians and Russian money into Thailand is also generating resentment in some quarters.
On Phuket, which was hit especially hard by the collapse of global tourism due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some local tourism businesses have expressed anger about Russians allegedly taking local jobs.
Tourism operators have complained about Russian taxi drivers shuttling their compatriots around the island and leading tour groups around Phuket’s historic Old Town, often without the required permits or visas.
Earlier this month, Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, president of the Phuket Tourist Association, complained about the prospect of Russians cutting into locals’ livelihoods.
“If it’s true they’re taking our jobs in our own home, we can’t allow this to happen,” Ruktaengam wrote on his Facebook page.