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.
“I think the Russians were the first to realize there’s more to Pattaya than the bars,” said Rob Astbury, sales manager with Pattaya Properties.
“We know that Pattaya has a sleaze image,” Astbury said. “Not a nice word, but it’s a fact. Just like Sydney has an area, (the infamous Australian red-light district) King’s Cross, we have what some would call an unsavory area too. For some it has appeal, but for others, no one is forcing you to go.”
Of Thailand’s 14.5 million tourists last year, nearly 321,000 were Russian — a more than 15 percent increase over the previous year. According to the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the number of Russian tourists arriving in Thailand increased 46 percent in 2007 and, in 2006, the number more than doubled.
But Pattaya, in recent months, has suffered under the global economic crisis. Russians, along with other foreigners, have come in smaller numbers. As local politicians attempt to clean up Pattaya’s reputation — and attract a wave of higher-spending couples and families — Astbury expects Russians will be among the first wealthy tourists to return.
He and many others in the travel or real estate industries have hired Russian-speaking agents.
“They’re saying, ‘Oh my God, I can have a condo next to the beach with people pampering me,” said Vera Mitrofanova, a Russian agent with developer Siam Best Enterprises. “It’s paradise here.”
Just as many Russian tourists remain unaware — or unconcerned — with Pattaya’s rough image, many service industry Thais seem oblivious to negative Russian stereotypes.
“Thais are not overwhelmed by this perception of Russians in the mafia,” Kriventsov said. “They fit perfectly into the category of ‘farang,’” he said, using a Thai word describing light-skinned foreigners.
But Kriventsov does offer one caveat. “The key issue preventing Russians from fully integrating is that they never smile,” Kriventsov said. “For a Thai, a non-smiling person is scary.”
The story of Russians in Pattaya, however, is darkened by Thai media reports of mafia activity in the resort town. Russians’ interest there has, to some, underscored Pattaya’s criminal image.
Downtown bars advertising “European girls” are largely believed to offer fair-skinned escorts from Russia or former Soviet states. Tour operators also acknowledge that plenty of Russian men come for the lurid nightlife.
Kriventsov said most of the mafia tales are exaggerated. Pattaya, he argued, just isn’t cash-rich enough to attract big-league Moscow crime lords.
The negative perception will shift, he said, as more Russians travel abroad and “demand the same modern, interesting facilities that other Western travelers want.”
“These days, Russians have the European mentality,” he said. “And they can complain as good as any European.”
More GlobalPost dispatches about Thailand: