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Moscow in the tropics

Welcome to the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, comrades.

Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova bows in a traditional Thai greeting during a visit to Pattaya in 2003. Kournikova, a Russian, has been paid to promote Thailand tourism. (Reuters)

PATTAYA, Thailand — In the minds of Thais, and many Western holiday-makers, this seaside city’s reputation has proven hard to scrub clean.

For 40 years and counting, Pattaya has offered a neon beacon of sleaze. After dark in the downtown blocks, middle-aged foreigners still prowl for paid sex and working girls paw at male passersby.

Though tourism operators have made headway into luring classier tourists to Pattaya and nearby areas, the image still scares off many luxury travelers.

Except, it seems, for Russians.

“Someone forgot to tell Russians that this is ‘Sin City’,” said Victor Kriventsov, sales and marketing director for the Royal Cliff Beach Resort.

This “five-star resort in a non-five star location,” as he calls it, is so frequented by Russians that the federation maintains a consulate at the Royal Cliff. This small plot of Russian soil overlooks fluttering palm fronds and a twinkling sea.

Russians have helped revitalize Pattaya, first transformed into raunchy nightspot decades ago by Vietnam War-era U.S. troops. The city has since seen its ups and downs, but now it has a new look. Pattaya abounds with Cyrillic signs advertising scuba shops, restaurants and bars. There’s even an all-Russian local TV station.

“It’s a cheap, visa-free beach far from the freezing cold in Russia. It’s that simple,” Kriventsov said. “I’d say 75 percent are families or couples. They might not even know about Pattaya’s bad reputation.”

Seven or eight years ago, many Russians and former Soviet states had never heard of Pattaya at all.

The Russian foothold in Pattaya owes much to Kriventsov, an attorney-turned-tourism guru who began drawing Russians here in 1990s. In the beginning, “the oligarchs and nouveau riche” arrived on private planes at nearby U-Tapao naval airfield. They’d park their planes like “valet parking,” leave the keys on base, and party for the weekend.

“Chartered planes? Bathtubs of champagne? I’ve seen all this,” he said. “It’s not really like that anymore.”

In the late 1990s, Kriventsov began traveling to Russia and former Soviet nations to seed interest in Pattaya and Thailand in general. At trade shows he was asked, "Where’s that? In Africa? South America?”

He also negotiated lighter visa restrictions for Russians with Thailand’s foreign ministry. Then and now, many holiday nations scrutinize Russians travelers more than Americans or Europeans. Now, Kriventsov said, Russians have some of the lightest travel visa restrictions.

As the oil economy helped strengthen a Russian upper-middle class, they came here as tourists — many to the Russian-friendly Royal Cliff resort. Many arrived as families, who inevitably spend more money than single, male travelers.