food / travel

Russia's Tourism Industry Shattered Over Ukraine

Russian travel agencies are going bankrupt as the Ukraine crisis clips the wings of tourism and keeps Russians at home. Many who have ventured abroad have found themselves stranded.

Wacław Radziwinowicz

MOSCOW — Clients of the respected travel agency Labyrinth found themselves grounded at airports around the world last weekend because the company went bankrupt without paying for their plane tickets. The Federal Agency of Tourism estimated that about 25,000 Russians were unable to return home, and as just as many had to abandon their holidays plans.

In the Turkish city of Antalya, a group of 100 Labyrinth clients organized a protest and — as Russians often do — asked President Vladimir Putin for his help. "We sleep on the floor, have no food, and only Russian tourists traveling with other agencies provide us with water," one tourist told a Russian radio station.

Labyrinth's bankruptcy is not an isolated case, as several other agencies have also gone belly up over the last few weeks amid a Russian tourism industry crisis resulting from its political isolation over the Ukraine conflict.

Two weeks ago, Russia's oldest and very popular travel agency — Neva, based in Saint Petersburg — went bankrupt, leaving more than 7,000 people stranded away from home. A week later, clients of the Wind Rose World agency shared the same fate.

Experts say the devastating downturn in the Russian tourism industry this time around is much harsher than five years ago, when the 2008 global economic crisis hit.

According to Russian Tourism Association spokesperson Irina Tiurina, there are three main factors driving it: the conflict in Ukraine and the sanctions that have resulted in Russia's involvement; devaluation of the ruble; and anti-Russian sentiment that is deterring Russians from traveling abroad.

Blame the government

In fact, the Russian government has officially asked citizens not to travel to foreign countries, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs warning that Russians could be taken into custody and handed to U.S. authorities to be put on trial.

Police officers, prosecutors and others in public service have been advised by their superiors not to travel abroad this year, and some of them even had their passports confiscated. Because these professions tend to pay well in Russia, people in this workforce comprise a big chunk of the tourism cake, which is now being left untouched.

Russian media outlets have been repeating for months that the rest of the world has adopted an attitude of hostility towards Russians, prompting many to decide against sending their children camps and courses abroad.

Russian citizens are also earning less than they did last year, which is another reason so many are opting to stay at home instead of traveling. In April 2013, average monthly income was $1,000 — but today it’s only $840. As a result, the number of people bankrolling vacations abroad has dropped by one-third compared to last year.

The local market isn’t doing well either. Vacation season in Crimea was a flop by any objective measure, as the number of tourists was just half what it was in recent years. Ukrainians stayed away from the territory that Russia recently annexed, and Russians feared using the most convenient access through Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, the alternative route across neighbor countries and the Kerch Strait was so overcrowded that travelers had to spend up to 48 hours in line for the ferry boat to get to the Crimean peninsula. And plane tickets are prohibitively expensive for many would-be Crimean vacationers.

Crimea became even less accessible Aug. 4 when Dobrolet — the main airline carrier connecting Moscow and Crimea's administrative center Simferopol — was subject to sanctions, leading to American withdrawal from airplane leasing contracts.

Even the city of Sochi, which recently hosted the winter Olympic games, is part of the losing streak. Newly constructed high-end hotels are empty because locals cannot afford them and foreigners aren't traveling there. In an attempt to rescue the resort, the government has announced that Sochi soon will become a gambling center.

In other words, Putin's promise that no casinos would ever appear there has shriveled right along with the Russian tourism industry.

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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

"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.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

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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