Making Room For The Russians

It's the small hours of the morning at Coco, a hot new nightclub in the Swiss ski resort of Verbier, and the champagne is flowing freely. In the VIP room, where the curtains are made of fur and the wallpaper covered in gold leaf, customers are ordering Coco Chalet—the club's signature champagne-and-cognac cocktail, served in a massive carved-ice sculpture—for a cool $9,000 a pop. Another skiing party has booked tables for all seven nights of their stay, ordering 20 bottles of Cristal champagne for each night—and paying the $150,000 bill in advance. The nationality of these high-rolling customers? Russian, of course. "Coco is just like a Moscow club, only probably less dressy and with less strict face control," says Roman, a 32-year-old Moscow-based banker who partied in Verbier in January. "The Europeans love us. What would they do without our cash?"

He's got a point. Lots of West Europeans—from Coco's British owner, Harvey Sinclair, to the proprietors of countless jewelry boutiques, art galleries and hotels in the poshest Alpine and beach resorts—do love the Russians, and the money they spend. But in some places, they're wearing out their welcome. Last year, 16 out of 20 four- and five-star hotels in the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbühel voted to limit the number of Russian visitors to 10 percent of the total number of guests at any one time. The official explanation: "We want international variety at the resort," says Renate Danier, Kitzbühel's former tourism chief. Likewise, at St-Moritz's Kempinski Grand Hotel des Bains, where suites can cost up to $8,000 a night, managers are refusing to take block bookings from large groups of Russians. "We are trying to keep the old money who have been our clientele for 100 years, but mix it with the new money coming from Russia," explains a spokesman for the hotel.

There's a less diplomatic explanation for what the snooty style magazine Monocle has dubbed a "new Cold-Shoulder War" against the Russians. Europeans don't want their favorite resorts becoming "yet another playground for Russian oligarchs, their fur-clad girlfriends, their bodyguards, their hookers and their drugs," stormed the gossip columnist Taki Theodoracopulos, a winter resident of the Swiss resort of Gstaad, in a recent editorial in the newspaper GstaadLife. "They are rude, crude, vulgar and known to act at times like proverbial bulls in a china shop."

Fair or not, Russians earned that reputation in part at Courchevel. From 2000 until last year, up to 20,000 Russians descended on the French ski resort for the New Year's and Orthodox Christmas holidays, turning the otherwise unremarkable modern resort into a byword for New Russian excess. Then last year French police brought the party to an abrupt halt by arresting Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov along with 25 other Russians, mostly young women, on suspicion of involvement in an international prostitution ring. Prokhorov was later released without charge—but the image of Russians abroad suffered badly.

It doesn't help that many Muscovites clearly love to play to the stereotype. Overheard recently in Moscow's Krysha nightclub: a conversation on how much to over-tip hotel staff, and the staff's amusing reactions to the huge sums. There's definitely an element of trying to compensate for half a lifetime of Soviet-era poverty, bad food and lack of travel opportunities. Russians abroad sometimes "behave like hungry men at a banquet," says Dmitry Trofimov, head of AVT, a high-end travel agency in Moscow. Many Russians like to assert themselves—even if only by spending money—after years of "being made to feel like poor, second-class citizens by snobby Europeans."

At the same time, West Europeans have been complaining for centuries about brash, rich and vulgar foreigners. Venice's Palazzo Contarini, for instance, hosts a discreet collection of late-19th-century caricatures lampooning rich Americans and their free-spending ways. "Thank God, we have none of those Russians here," says one bartender in the Old World resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo in the Italian Dolomites. "We only have our old, respectable clientele." But then he launches into a breathless rundown of how much Russians are spending on properties in resorts like Forte dei Marmi and Sardinia.

In truth, for every posh hotel trying to turn Russians away, many more are trying to attract them, bad behavior or no. The Grand Hotel des Alpes in Chamonix, for instance, took on Russian receptionists and printed menus in Russian last season. In Aspen, Colorado, locals seem positively delighted at the prospect of an influx: "Super-rich Russians are coming! The jet-setters descend on Aspen and Vail, eager to soak up Colorado luxury," screamed a recent headline in The Denver Post. The number of Russians holidaying in Colorado has tripled over the last three years; Russian billionaire and Chelsea football-club owner Roman Abramovich recently bought a $12 million luxury chalet near Aspen. "Our message all along has been 'open arms'," says Bob Stinchcomb, director of sales for Vail Resorts. "It's beautiful to be working with a market where price almost never is part of the conversation."

Turkish resorts, too, are falling over themselves to attract Russians—though not exactly of the oligarch type. Turkey is close to Russia, it's cheap and—crucially—it allows visitors of all nationalities to buy a visa at the border. Last year nearly 1.5 million Russians traveled to Turkey, making it the most popular destination of Russian holidaymakers. The coolest nightclub in the coastal town of Kemer, the Aura, may not crack many bottles of Cristal, but it does play exclusively Russian music and serves vodka for $3 a shot. Muslim Avdin, a Turk who has worked as an "animator," or holiday organizer, at several local resorts, even traveled to Moscow during last winter's off season to improve his Russian. Most big resorts need Russian-speaking managers these days, he says; it's standard practice to have hotel buffets labeled in Cyrillic. And he believes the behavior of the few should not ruin it for everyone. "Normal middle-class Russians have a decent reputation," he says. "It's when they are rich, they get more arrogant."

One thing's for sure: it's hard to find a holiday spot without Russians. In 1995 just 2.6 million Russians went abroad; last year an estimated 8.7 million did. Among them were doubtless most of Russia's 103,000 millionaires and 55 billionaires. Love or hate them, the world's tourism industry is going to have to get used to the fact that the Russians are here in force. And as long as their oil money keeps flowing, they'll find plenty of hotels, restaurants and boutiques eager to welcome them.