Russians flock to Austria to spend and buy property

More and more Russians visit Austria every year to the delight of luxury shops and tourism representatives, but prime property features increasingly on their shopping lists, alongside shoes and handbags.

The number of Russian tourists “has grown very strongly, especially in the last six years”, Ursula Schorer, manager of the four-star Erika Hotel in the ritzy Tyrolean resort of Kitzbuehel, said.

Last year alone, the number of Russians visiting Austria went up 21,6% from 2005, according to the statistical institute Statistik Austria.

In Vienna — their main destination — the figure has almost doubled in the past five years, said local tourism board director Karl Seitlinger.

“This is something to be happy about.”

Indeed, while German and Dutch tourists are the most frequent visitors to the land of Mozart and Sachertorte, the city’s iconic chocolate cake, Russians make up in spending what they lack in numbers.

“It’s well-known that the Russians’ daily consumption is much higher than the average: in boutiques, in hotels — they also spend a lot at the casino,” said Michael Hoenigmann, marketing manager at Kitzbuehel’s five-star Harisch Hotel Weisses Roessl.

“They’ll order dinner and a bottle of champagne without looking at the price,” added Martin Schaeffl, tourism board director in Mayrhofen, the Russians’ top winter-resort destination in Austria.

The average Russian visitor spends €250 daily compared with €114 for Germans or €118 for the Dutch, according to Statistik Austria. And top accommodation is key: last year, 19% of Russian tourists in Vienna stayed in a five-star hotel while 54% settled for four stars.

“We like them very much,” said Ingrid Wurzenrainer, a salesperson at Kitzbuehel’s Louis Vuitton boutique, adding that Russian tourists come in not to browse but to buy.

Popular winter resorts like Mayrhofen and Soelden in the western province of Tyrol are even multiplying services and special events in the hope of attracting more Russians to their slopes.

Besides hiring Russian-speaking ski instructors, many now have websites in Russian and several restaurants offer menus in the Cyrillic alphabet.

“They’re very happy to spend but only if they can communicate. And now with all this, it’s easier,” said Soelden tourism spokesperson Carmen Fender.

Russians make up less than 1% of tourists to Austria per year — 133 658 visited in 2006 — but in early January during Orthodox Christmas and New Year’s, the figure can reach 20% in places like Soelden, which now offers soirees with Russian music and even a New Year’s bash with a live broadcast of President Vladimir Putin’s speech.

More than 20-million foreign tourists visit Austria, a country of eight million, every year.

“Many Russians are not coming for the first time, they are coming for the second, third or fourth time … They like to come here to ski and Vienna is a popular shopping destination,” said Russian embassy spokesperson Roman Nikischin.

Some even visit just for the weekend.

But recent reports show rich Russians are increasingly buying prime Austrian real estate.

In December, News magazine reported that billionaire Roman Abramovich had bought a €15-million villa on lake Attersee, a celebrity hotspot near Salzburg.

Rumours then surfaced in January that he had purchased a building on Vienna’s luxurious designer-shop avenue Kohlmarkt via a Liechtenstein-based firm for €27-million.

In Kitzbuehel, billionairess Yelena Baturina, wife of Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, reportedly bought a golf course and hotel last summer for the round sum of €25-million.

“I can’t confirm it at the moment, it’s a rumour,” said Kitzbuehel city spokesperson Felix Obermoser, adding the sale was still being examined.

Non-European Union citizens cannot purchase property in Austria but “there are always ways, through a private limited company for example”, said Vienna realtor Ernst Thomas who specialises in high-class real estate.

Between 35% and 40% of his clients are Russian: “They have more and more capital at their disposal and they want to invest.”

Reports that several high-end Kitzbuehel hotels wanted to limit to 10% the number of Russian guests in their establishments caused an international outcry in January. Tourism officials scrambled to squash the reports, insisting on the contrary they hoped to attract more Russians in the future.

“We haven’t imposed a quota. It would be a catastrophe: Who would we rent those luxury suites to?” said Hoenigmann with a laugh. — AFP

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