A Russian guest was so happy recently with the service at a swanky restaurant, where he had been dining with his family, that at the end of the meal he threw a wad of baht notes into the air as a tip for the Thai staff.
Mayhem ensued as the waiters – to the complete disgust of the owner – scrambled for a share of the B20,000 littering the floor.
A crass gesture, perhaps, but one that gives the lie to a commonly held opinion on the island that the Russian tourists coming here these days are all cheap-Charlie, zero-dollar visitors.
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin spent a few days in Phuket about nine years ago – one of the very first Russians to visit the island, and himself a noted big spender – word has spread and today the Russians pour in by the thousands every day.
Last year Russian tourists and Chinese visitors – the other big boom group – accounted for 38 per cent of arrivals to Phuket, and more than 3 million people from China and Russia visited Thailand as a whole.
Some numbers: In a recent report, consultancy C9 Hotelworks said the largest spending by tourists in Phuket was on accommodation (30 per cent), followed by shopping (24 per cent).
Chinese, Russian and Australian visitors were the top spenders at leading shopping centres.
The top five international source markets for the island-province accounted for 60 per cent of all tourists last year, up from 56 per cent in 2011.
They were China (22 per cent), Russia (15 per cent), Australia (10 per cent), South Korea (9 per cent) and Malaysia (4 per cent).
The number of Russians living on the island, too, has swelled. Estimates by expat Russians themselves of the number of their compatriots in Phuket on non-immigrant visas vary between 1,000 and 5,000, depending on the time of year.
Phuket’s Russian community even has its own church now, the Holy Trinity Church in Thalang, built with funds raised in the Russian community, proof positive that there is money around.
So are Russians cheap-Charlies, or are they the geese laying golden eggs?
The manager of a Phuket luxury villa rental company, specialising in middle- to high-end villas, told The Phuket News that the number of Russian clients coming to him was increasing at such a rapid rate that he was looking into getting Russian agents to handle the demand.
Christmas and New Year were the peak time for Russian tourists to rent villas on his books, with families paying up to US$10,000 (B300,000) a night for a five- or six-room villa.
The individual numbers are impressive: one Russian group of 10 people came over for 10 nights, and paid US$32,000 (B960,000) – in cash – to rent a five-bedroom villa from the agent.
“The Christmas just gone we had another Russian client who spent US$90,000 (B2.7 million) on a villa for six weeks.”
Asked if Russian tourists were cheapskates, he said, “I totally disagree with that. The cheapest tourists we get are Singaporean, Hong Kong-Chinese, and Indian. You cannot compare the Russians with them in terms of spending.
“As far as I’m concerned the Russian clients we have had are all very high-end and spend a lot of money.”
As for people who complain that Russians don’t spend much money on things other than accommodation, he said he believed they did spend the money, but with companies that have Russian-speaking staff.
“Ninety per cent of them don’t speak any English. The high-end ones do; they’re educated. But the Russians who stay in hotels often can’t communicate. Which is why they tend to go to the Russian-operated businesses. They probably do spend money but they spend it with Russian-speaking companies.”
A Phuket car rental agent agreed. He said that in the three years he had been renting out vehicles he had noticed a significant increase in the number of Russian customers.
“Especially since I started advertising convertibles for rent, 90 per cent of the [hirers] of these cars have been Russians. The cost is B4,000 to B5,000 a day for the convertibles.”
The reason Russians want to rent a convertible, he said, is “for lifestyle reasons”.
“They like exclusive things. And that’s the problem – there are not too many exclusive things in Phuket.
“The Russians who come to stay two or three weeks have money to spend. They have no trouble paying, even when there is damage.
“My friend rents out motorbikes, the big bikes, and 60 per cent of his customers are Russian. There are never troubles with them paying.
“I also get a lot of requests from Russians who want small cars, and for these they are happy to pay B20,000 a month. Many Russians prefer cars to bikes. Russia itself is a dangerous place to drive, so they feel safer in a car – especially when they have a child.
“I have many long-stay customers, who stay three or four months and rent a house. But most stay short-term over the high season, and they have money. They rent expensive villas. When I deliver a car it is usually to high-priced accommodation.”
A manager at a Phuket entertainment venue said about 20 per cent of his clientèle are Russians, and many have a lot of money.
“The rich can spend a lot. For example, a bottle of champagne might cost B24,000. And sometimes they buy two or three bottles [in a single evening].”
A representative of another venue said, “They like to book private parties, and are happy to spend a lot for exclusive extras in terms of entertainment and champagne.”
This, of course, is by no means all Russians. Some, like many of the Chinese, do come on zero-dollar packages, with flights, accommodation, meals and tours prepaid, and spend little in the local market.
But like all nationalities, Russia has its not so wealthy people and its very wealthy people. And for the latter group when they arrive in Phuket, it seems that mere money is never going to get in the way of having a thoroughly good time. Perhaps more so than any other nationality.