Stranded Russians returning home after tour operator’s bankruptcy

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Russian government threatens to halt dealings with ‘greedy’ Thai hotels, agents

About 350 Russian tourists stranded in Pattaya when their Moscow-based tour operator went bankrupt have begun returning home amid a threat from the Russian government to stop dealing with “greedy” Thai hotels that exploited victims.

The Jan. 27 bankruptcy of Russia’s oldest and largest tour operator, Lanta-Tour Voyage, left 341 Pattaya holidaymakers with unpaid hotel rooms and return tickets. Regional and tourist police along with the Tourism Authority of Thailand quickly mobilized to find new accommodations and flights home, which began last week.

Officials meet with some of the stranded Russian tourists in a town hall style meeting at the Ambassador City Jomtien hotel. Officials meet with some of the stranded Russian tourists in a town hall style meeting at the Ambassador City Jomtien hotel.

The crisis began after Lanta-Tour announced on its website it was suspending operations due to an “inability to adequately provide funding of the ordered services.” About 2,700 of its customers around the world were abandoned, their hotel bills unpaid and their return tickets canceled. Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a fraud probe into executives of Lanta-Tour Voyage, which annually serves about 100,000 tourists.

In Pattaya, the company’s local managing director, Olga Shendrik, surrendered to Banglamung Police Jan. 31 and was arrested for allegedly working without a work permit and defrauding Russian tourists booked at the In Town and Ambassador City hotels.

Region 2 Police Commander Lt. Gen. Punya Maamen met with 160 of the stranded Russians in a “town hall” style meeting at the Ambassador, assuring them  that police, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Russian embassy and even the office of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were working to bring them home.

On orders from Putin’s office, Russian state development bank VTB said it would lend Lanta-Tour the equivalent of $7 million at a 12 percent interest rate to settle hotel bills and repatriate overseas travelers. Foreign media reported that Eastern European agents that contracted with Lanta-Tour also promised to reimburse travelers once they returned home.

At the same time, however, Putin’s government lashed out at hotels and tour operators in Thailand and elsewhere for allegedly exploiting the situation.

The state-run TASS new agency on Feb. 4 said, “Major Russian tour operators will no longer deal with hotels and companies in Thailand, Vietnam and India who were extorting money from the clients of the financially troubled Lanta Tour Voyage firm.”

No further details were provided, but for Pattaya, which has seen the majority of its growth in recent years come from the Russian market, the boycott pledge was exactly what local officials were trying to prevent.

In Town Hotel executives said Feb. 2 they would swallow the loss from Lanta-Tour’s non-payment and not charge victims of the shutdown for their rooms as well as allow them to stay at the hotel free until return flights could be booked. The hotel’s general manager said Lanta-Tour had paid about 100,000 baht for each of the approximately 100 Russians staying at the resort, but that did not cover the full bill.

Total losses to Pattaya-area hotels and businesses are estimated at 10 million baht and Punya’s search of the company’s local branch office at Wonderland Village house off Sukhumvit Road turned up no evidence that money can be recouped.

Punya, along with top Chonburi Police commanders, visited the house Jan. 30, and found only owner Daoloi Khwamaak, 52. She said Shendrik had signed a five-year lease and, until now, had never missed a payment. A search found only a few stacks of papers and evidence that the firm employed 14 Thai staffers to run the operation, none of whom have received their last paychecks.

As for the stranded Russians themselves, one said he was obviously upset about Lanta-Tour’s bankruptcy and that the crisis initially sapped his group of any interest in continuing tourist activities. However, he said, once authorities began addressing the problem, their enthusiasm returned and his group planned to return to Pattaya again later.

In all, about 4,000 travelers are estimated to have been affected by Lanta-Tour Voyage’s bankruptcy, 1,300 of which were in Moscow waiting for flights. The company had sold 3,000 tours in the past year and a Belarus agent working with Lanta-Tour was quoted in newspapers claiming the company simply crumbled under the weight of its own expansion plans.

Vladimir Makovski, head of tour operators Vneshinturist, claimed Lanta-Tour attempted to work in too many exotic destinations, including Thailand, India, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam and China.

“In such cases,” he told Telegraph.by, “the operator has too many obligations and too many rooms on the guarantees in the hotels. This implies inevitably huge costs the company can’t cope with at some point.”

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