By Chayut Setboonsarng and Orathai Sriring
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand is receiving an influx of Russian visitors, with data showing monthly arrivals doubling in November and up nearly seven times than September, far outpacing rises from other countries in the run-up to peak travel season.
One of Asia's most popular travel destinations, Thailand is seeing a much-needed tourism boom, with 1.75 million visitors in November, quadruple the number received for the whole of last year when flights and foreign arrivals were limited by the pandemic.
Thailand removed the last vestige of its tight COVID-19 entry policies in July to revive its collapsed tourism sector and since September, and arrivals from Russia have grown at a faster rate monthly than any other country, including those rising from low bases, according to official data.
Russia was Thailand's seventh-largest tourism market in 2019, before the pandemic, at 1.48 million visitors, but on a monthly basis in November, it was third behind Malaysia and India, with 108,985 arrivals, up from 44,314 in October and 15,900 in September.
By comparison, arrivals from Malaysia fell steadily from September's 332,493 to 258,873 by November and visitors from India grew incrementally each month from 116,386 in September to 145,628 in November.
Russian arrivals in November represented about 60% of the number who visited in the same month in 2019.
"This year we have seen the Russian market return, particularly after the Ukraine conflict," said Stuart Reading, deputy CEO of Laguna Resorts and Hotels.
He said the strengthening of the rouble against the Thai baht had helped, as had his chain's hiring of some Russian-speaking staff.
The rouble has been one of world's best-performing major currencies against the dollar this year.
Russian travellers tend to stay longer than others, Reading added, at seven to 10 nights, while "snowbirds" escaping the harsh winter back home were staying up to three months.
A top destination for Russians is Phuket, where they account for about a quarter of the island's visitors, helped by direct flights to there and Bangkok, according to Yuthasak Supasorn, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT).
"We're seeing Russian families renting homes and extending their stays from 16 days to a few months," Bhummikitti Ruktaengam, Phuket's Tourist Association advisory chairman.
"In the evening you'll see Russian families strolling in the park along with locals," he said, adding some were staying until March.
Overall arrival numbers could exceed 11.5 million by year-end, according to the TAT, just over a quarter of the record of nearly 40 million in 2019, who spent about 1.91 trillion baht ($55.17 billion).
($1 = 34.6200 baht)
(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng and Orathai Siring; Editing by Martin Petty)