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Moscow in the tropics

Welcome to the Thai beach resort of Pattaya, comrades.

“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.”

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