One man is charged with taking care of this rapidly swelling national group, not only in Phuket, but also in Krabi and Phang-Nga. He is Phuket-born Santi Udomkiratak, the Deputy Honorary Consul for the Russian Federation.
Although he is based in Kata, Mr Santi spends the majority of his time when out of the office in Rawai and Nai Harn, the area with the highest concentration of Russian nationals.
“Russian people like to stay and live together. One of the main reasons is that not many people understand their language. Many feel better staying together.”
But, he added, “I often meet them through my work, and I can tell you they are nice people.”
Mr Santi believes that the language barriers will eventually break down as more Russian people become able to speak English in the near future. He cites what was once a similarly isolated and closed nation, the former East Germany, as evidence of how fast things can change.
“I visited East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1988 and there were hardly any Germans there who could speak English.
“Just 10 short years later it was a huge difference. Now many of the young generation speak English fluently.”
Interestingly, Mr Santi himself does not speak Russian, though he has a Russian secretary who interprets for him.
Mr Santi believes that the main reasons Russian nationals are flocking to Phuket in droves is the differences between their country and Thailand.
Russia’s cold climate coupled with vast amounts of land that are unsuitable for growing crops or rearing livestock were both factors, he said, so whenever they get a chance to visit Thailand, Russians “absolutely” come.
The cost of travelling to Thailand has also become substantially cheaper with up to 10 charter flights a day to Phuket and tour packages at around B40,000 per person.
“Last month I visited Moscow and met the Thai Ambassador. He said how busy he and the embassy are just providing information about climate and potential health hazards.”
He added that, around four years ago, Phuket forged an agreement with Nakhodka – a city in the Russian Far East – to grant Phuket sister city status, thus enabling Thai citizens to visit Russia with ‘free’ visas.
Mr Santi told The Phuket News that during the current high season, demand for Phuket visits by Russian nationals has meant that Phuket International Airport can no longer accommodate all of the Russian traffic and many visitors have to fly into Krabi airport and then travel by bus to Phuket.
Due to the large number of Russian tourists, there have thus been more Russian tour operators and tour guides – a job reserved for Thai citizens.
Looking after all these tourists has caused problems, he admits. For example, he says, “We have to accept that we do not have Russian-speaking Thai staff [to work as guides] so the companies hire Russians.
“The Thai guide who goes with the Russian group is just a ‘sitting guide’ who holds a license but does not do any guide work,” Mr Santi explained.
As a consequence, he believes, scenes like the January 4 protest involving local people in Karon protesting against ‘unfair’ competition from the growing numbers of Russian businesses are likely to be repeated.
“There are a lot of Russian tourists in Phuket now but there are very few [Thais] who can speak Russian, so naturally Russian businesses are increasing,” he said. “However, I understand how the local business people feel.
“Many Russian workers and business people do not have work permits, and the consul has recently announced to every Russian business that we will be more strict in enforcing our regulations in the future.”
When asked about the recent brawl involving Russians, a Canadian and a Thai at a Surin Beach club, Mr Santi said that in his opinion, it had little to do with nationalities and was more about individual personalities. “Every nation has its good people and its bad people.”
With Phuket still lacking Russian-speaking Thai manpower, Mr Santi said he is now coordinating with the Prince of Songkhla University to set up a course in Russian language.
The consul’s main duties involve acting as a coordinator and translator for Russian people around the island, a role that includes ensuring Russians are taken to hospital in the event of accidents, and have insurance or funding to pay medical bills.
“We coordinate with the police and the insurance companies, except in very serious cases, where the Russian Embassy takes over.”
Mr Santi told The Phuket News that the biggest problem affecting Russians in Phuket is road accidents “and the ensuing official procedures”.
However, he praised the public Vachira Phuket Hospital which, unlike some other hospitals on the island, deals with Russian patients, and has a special department to take care of foreigners, with members of staff able to speak foreign languages and liaise with consular officials.
Mr Santi also touched upon other ways Russians get into trouble in Phuket, including working without permits, working as prostitutes and being members of “the Mafiya”.
“Each and every month, many Russians who do not have work permits or valid visas are arrested by the Immigration Police – many of whom are caught selling products to Russian tourists such as coconut oil and rubber beds and pillows,” he said.
But Mr Santi said that public preconceptions regarding Russians were frequently wrong. For example, he said, few prostitutes who work in Russian bars and entertainment venues are actually Russian.
“They speak Russian because they are from the former Soviet Union, but they come from other countries such as Albania or Uzbekistan. I have encountered only one prostitute who held a Russian passport.”
Mr Santi believes Phuket residents need not worry about Mafiya control of crime, similar to what is alleged to have taken place in Pattaya. “I am confident we still have no worries about that,” he said.
“For Russian people, Phuket is still a good place to invest and do business because of the increasing number of Russian tourists, so there will be more Russian business people in Phuket in the near future.
“We are more than ready to help Russian people in Phuket,” Mr Santi said.