Russians & Sex: Thailand's Top 10 Leadership Insights (Part IV)


Part IV of IV

Part I

Part II

Part III


JOMTIEN, THAILAND - What can a business leader learn from today’s Thailand? Turns out, plenty. My wife and I recently spent two weeks in Jomtien, just south of Pattaya, Thailand. Here are ten observations that may be of interest to business leaders.


9 – The Russians Are Coming

One immediate puzzler: why are there so many Russians in Thailand? In any tourist area, the most common language among tourists is Russian. Even if you don't understand Russian (other than "nyet, nyet, Soviet, da, da, Canada") the spoken language is readily identifiable from its cadence (it sounds like people shouting at each other). Russians have to be identified by their language as they are not walking around with “Go Mother Russia!” t-shirts. At one tourist site, the Crocodile Park, the commentary for the crocodile show is in Russian. The signs are in Russian.

Where the tourists come from can tell you a lot about the economy and the country itself. It turns out that Thailand is one of Russia’s only friends—pragmatism and money will always trump principle. Thailand needs tourists' dollars; forget about any high-minded principles. Russians are welcomed and hence Aeroflot is flying regularly to Bangkok. North Koreans, I suspect, would be welcomed, too.

There are not many places where a Russian passport will be greeted warmly and no visas are required. They may be a pariah in many parts of the world, but Thailand needs to survive.

During the course of my visit, I ended up speaking with a Russian who had emigrated to and lived in Canada for many years. She stated bluntly that, “Russians are embarrassed to be from Russia. They whisper if anyone asks them where they are from.”


10 - Branding: Sex in Thailand

When my wife and I would mention that we were traveling to Thailand (Air Canada recently started flying non-stop direct to Bangkok from Vancouver), virtually everyone would ask questions like: “Why Thailand?”, “Don’t you know about its sleazy reputation?” and “Are you not aware of the sex trade?” 

Thailand is referred to by many people as “the whorehouse of Asia” and, indeed, the world. Thanks to obese overaged Germans coming over by the planeload, who prefer underweight and underaged Thai girls, there is active sex tourism. A power and weight imbalance manifested in a personal context. From Europe, prominent users of the sex trade, in addition to Germany, are Italy and France. 

One of our Grab drivers was quite apologetic and, unprompted, started explaining that the sex trade does not reflect his beloved Thailand. It’s the underbelly for tourists. He seemed quite embarrassed. 

The government does its best to minimize the sex trade (in fact, going by government publications you wouldn't know it exists). The government also downplays the fact that AIDS is still prevalent in Thailand. Though not the scourge it was previously, it still is a serious long-term health concern. There are various practical outcomes of the sex trade. Children born to parents with AIDS are typically discarded, according to couple from North America running an orphanage for these children on the outskirts of Bangkok. 

So, the Thailand brand is synonymous with the unseemly sex trade—people need to decide if they can tolerate those sights while on holiday or simply largely avoid them by staying in resort areas. If you are based at a resort (such as Jomtien), go to places selectively, and are not in the core of Pattaya, then it’s not too noticeable. You can then enjoy the benefits of great endless beaches, a hot climate, and good food. And the prices are quite reasonable given current exchange rates. 

The country is apparently trying to shift its brand to be a more family-friendly destination. Not easy. The sex trade industry in Thailand began as far back as the 1960s with off-duty US soldiers during the Vietnam War era. In addition, Thailand has a lot of competition in southeast Asia with great resort areas such as Bali, Penang, and Kota Kinabalu which don’t have the same branding issues. 

The problem remains: how do you change a brand? Not easy.