A Match Made in Heaven
Rich Russian businessmen might seem strange bedfellows for the tawdry Thai beach resort of Pattaya, but they are reviving the resort with their rubles
By Ron Gluckman / Pattaya, Thailand
SIGHING HEAVILY AND SWEATING PROFUSELY, stocky Igor Kontorskii steps forward to greet yet another tour group at Bangkok's Don Muang International Airport. Before a word is spoken, the travel guide knows exactly what his travelers will ask him and exactly what they want. Within minutes, he has them aboard a bus weaving through traffic on its way to the tawdry, has-been beach resort of Pattaya.
While other visitors might be best served with warnings about the polluted water or the streetwise bar girls who staff Pattaya's thriving sex industry, Kontorskii is besieged with queries on buying gold, locating bathrooms and finding the finest caviar and champagne. If the questions seem out of place, it's because the guests are too. All are Russian.
When the popularity of Pattaya began to fill charter flights from Moscow last winter, Russia-based Amber Tours & Travel Inc. plucked Kontorskii, an unemployed Southeast Asia expert, from Kiev and planted him in Pattaya -- Thailand's most maligned beach. Kontorskii believes he is Thailand's first Ukrainian tour guide.
"It's funny," laments the bespectacled academic, who speaks Thai and Lao as well as English and Russian. "For years there is no work, not even as a translator, and then my dream comes true. I'm sent to Thailand. But not to study, to help tourists."
For nearly a half-century, the Cold War limited Russian tourists to Soviet-approved options like China, Turkey, Poland and Finland. Together, those countries received 80 percent of all Russian travelers as recently as 1992. Last year, they accounted for only 15 percent of Russians' trips abroad. Finally free to travel, Russians are looking further afield, and Thailand, Pattaya in particular, seems the dream destination. Russia, not even listed in Thai tourism figures until last year, now represents the country's fastest-growing source of visitors.
They form a single-minded market, these former Soviets who head straight from Bangkok to the beach. "They don't want temples, they don't want culture," says Irina Firsova, Amber Tours' Moscow manager. An Asia scholar and the daughter of a diplomat stationed in India, Firsova admits: "It's the level of our tourism, which is just starting over again now. They want nightclubs, sun and fun."
Their tourist dollars have virtually refloated a sinking Pattaya. And evidence is everywhere in this resort 130 kilometers southeast of Bangkok. Welcome signs in Russian script hang over many shops. Vendors beckon and barter in Russian: davai (take it), or deshyovyi (cheap). A Bangladeshi salesman at New Rama Tailor has added Russian to the seven other languages he speaks. "I learn from the customers," he says. "Right now, there are lots of Russians. They say that clothes are cheaper here, and they buy lots of jewelry."
Money To Spend
At the Royal Cliff Beach Resort, where Executive Vice President Alois Fassbind was an early booster of tourism from Russia, waiters are learning to take orders in Russian. Last year Fassbind was the only Thai hotelier at a Moscow travel-trade fair. This year he went again, as part of a Thai delegation of three dozen people. At this point, he's happy for the support of his fellow hoteliers and eager to emphasize cooperation, rather than competition. "Even at the top end, this is a huge market," he says. "These are big spenders who order room service, the finest champagne and caviar. We did over 10 million baht ($400,000) in business with the Russians last January, and that was one month alone. The Russian market is going to be very, very big."
How big? Nobody really knows, but an estimated 2 million Russians went overseas in 1994. That's a 67 percent increase over 1992. Industry experts expect the number of Russian tourists to soar to 15 million over the next few years.
The new source of tourists has arrived at a perfect time for Pattaya, the grand dame of Asia's beach resorts. A sleepy fishing village until the 1970s, Pattaya bloomed as a recreation center for U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War. Bars and hotels quickly spread along the sand until Pattaya was second in Thailand only to Bangkok as a magnet for tourists.
But Pattaya never recovered from a combination of the Gulf War-related tourism slump and a reputation in Europe -- its main source of visitors -- as a hotbed for the AIDS virus. The resulting price cuts on accommodation attracted a less affluent clientele, speeding up the downward spiral. Meanwhile, the waters have become increasingly polluted, and erosion has taken its toll on the beach.
As visitor arrivals plummeted during the past decade, Thai officials fought back, budgeting tens of millions of dollars to make over Pattaya. A water-treatment plant that opened in 1993 cost $37 million to build, while $23 million will add a sewage-treatment plant next year. Other expenditures include $6 million for beach rehabilitation, $7 million for a landfill and $13 million for a pier to serve the cruise ships that tourism officials hope to attract to a rejuvenated Pattaya.
In February, journalists from all over Asia were flown to Thailand and whisked to Pattaya for publicity junkets. Theme: the revitalization of the beachside metropolis -- its new, modern shopping centers, more than a dozen nearby golf courses and the opening of the first Ripley's Believe It Or Not! museum in Southeast Asia.
Local officials bristled at press queries about Pattaya's notorious nightlife, insisting the resort had changed its red-light ways to become a true family destination. The new slogan unveiled for Pattaya was "City with a Beach."
"City with VD," retorted one reporter.
The wisecrack carries some weight. To bring back the Europeans and Asians, Pattaya must first overpower conventional wisdom and outrun its seedy past. For this reason, and many others, the Russians and Pattaya seem to be a match that's heavenly made.
"Few of them are even aware of the girls offering sex for money," Kontorskii says. "Most are middle-aged and here with their wives. The Americans, Germans and French all have guidebooks. The Russians have no idea what to expect."
The Russians do visit discos, but the wallet-bearing men bring their well-dressed wives, after dinner and a day of shopping. Contrast that with budget travelers who pay $6 for a room and populate such places as Baby A Go Go, where kimono-clad girls coo at customers, or Cheerleaders, next door, where the entrance is between the legs of a 22-foot-tall papier-mache woman.
No seductions are needed to woo the Russians. "We love Thailand," says Maria, a Moscow resident on a 10-day Pattaya holiday. "Everything is so different -- the people, the colors. I love the smells. It's all so exotic. There's no one thing that comes first. It's all fantastic."
That kind of enthusiasm does not go unnoticed at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Sethapan Buddhani, director of Pattaya's TAT office, believes Russians are destined to be Pattaya's best customers. That would require incredible growth, indeed, since more than 183,000 Germans visited last year, compared with about 40,000 Russians. Yet Sethapan foresees Russians reaching the 200,000 mark in only a few years.
Bold predictions are justifiable. Seats sold at a premium on packed Russian charter flights last Christmas. "Pattaya is our main business now," says Amber Tours' Firsova. "Russians have known about Pattaya for two years, but they really know it from people who have already been."
Word-of-mouth promotion will soon get a boost from the airing of a television special that Amber Tours filmed earlier this year. Meanwhile, Thai tourism officials sent another delegation to Moscow in August and are scouting other potential markets in Eastern Europe, from St. Petersburg to Poland.
While Russians fall head over heels for Thailand, Thais are growing rather fond of their Slavic visitors in return. "These are good tourists," says TAT's Sethapan. "Our research shows they spend a lot of money, much more than other tourists. They are big spenders, buying watches and clothes, 1,000 items at a time." He adds: "For us, it's a little bit like finding gold."
Ron Gluckman is an American journalist based in Hong Kong, who travels widely around the Asian region for a variety of publications, including Asia, Inc., which ran this story in 1995. It was later reprinted in publications in the USA, Russia and Thailand.
To return to the opening page and index