food / travel

Tourism In Russia, A Silver Lining For Ruble Nose Dive

Chinese tourists in Moscow's Red Square
Chinese tourists in Moscow's Red Square
Aleksandra Mertsalova

MOSCOW — Russia placed 45th in the world on the most recent Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, a ranking of 141 countries compiled twice a year by the World Economic Forum and Strategy Partners Group. This represents a significant improvement over the previous year, when it ranked 63rd.

Industry analysts agree that the driving factor in this jumb is the steady devaluation of the ruble, which makes travel to Russia much more affordable for foreigners.

Since May of last year, the ruble has lost 44% compared to the dollar — which means that hotels have become substantially cheaper. In fact, the World Economic Forum noted in 2013 that one of the reasons Russia's ranking wasn't better then was because hotels were excessively expensive.

Russia receives extra points for both its natural and cultural attractions. In those areas, the latest index ranked the country 34th and 21st respectively. It is also relatively well-served by airlines, another key rating factor.

But Russia also has some serious strikes against it when it comes to tourism. Worst of all, perhaps, are its visa requirements, for which it places 120th worldwide in terms of tourist friendliness. Russia also has a low level of international openness, and the consultants who conducted the ranking consider the country's business climate "unfavorable." Russia is also near the bottom of the pack in terms of security.

The report clarifies that a large number of the data points were collected before the events the Ukraine crisis began. "We won't be able to fully evaluate the effects of macroeconomic and geopolitical factors until the next rating," explains Strategy Partners Group's Aleksei Prazdnichnikh.

Tour operators have long complained that Russia's strict visa demands are one of the primary factors preventing its tourism industry from growing. "Waiving visas for Europeans would double the number of tourists in the country, but right now that's not possible," explains Vladimir Kantorovich, vice president of the Russian Tour Operators Association. He says that tour operators are often unable to have even minor rules relaxed for their customers.

"For example, the Russian Ministry of International Affairs recently announced that citizens of India would no longer have to present an original version of their invitation letter, but in reality the consulate still requires that piece of paper," Kantorovich says, referring to the document that international tourists are required to have to get a Russian visa.

Russia saw 28.4 million international arrivals in 2013, with each spending an average of $423. In total, tourism spending reached $11.98 billion. By comparison, the number of international arrivals in Spain the same year was 60.7 million, and those tourists spent a total of $62.7 billion.

According to the Russian Tourism Agency, there were 25.4 million international tourist arrivals in the country last year (10% less than in 2013). Tour operators began noticing a major drop in interest around the end of 2014, as the conflict in Ukraine heated up and tour reservations dropped to almost nothing.

But now market actors are more optimistic. According to Kantorovich, unless the ruble rises in value, the tourism sector will have at least as many customers in 2015 as in 2014.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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