Russian tourism plunge chills traditional Alpine hosts

Tourists walk in the snow at the Hintertuxer Glacier in the Austrian province of Tyrol August 10,...

Tourists walk in the snow at the Hintertuxer Glacier in the Austrian province of Tyrol August 10, 2011. Credit: Reuters/Lisi Niesner

Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich, Oliver Hirt and Jan Lopatka, Reuters

, Last Updated: 11:27 AM ET

A sharp drop in Russian visitors is sending an icy chill through Alpine ski resorts that have previously profited from free-spending eastern tourists.

Moscow's standoff with the West over Ukraine and a weakening economy that has seen the rouble drop by more than a fifth against the euro and Swiss franc this year, has made many Russians think twice about traveling to Austria or Switzerland.

"It has become more expensive. We are trying to save money," said Ksenia Konovalova, 32, the customer service manager at a Russian food company in Moscow. She has gone on holiday in the Alps for the last three years, but won't be there this winter.

"It's time to see how things are in Sochi when it is unclear what will happen with the rouble," she said, referring to the Russian town that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Bookings in some Austrian ski regions are down 30 to 40%, said one tourism official who requested anonymity. The Swiss tourism agency expects overnight stays by Russian guests to fall 7-10% in 2014.

Only the high-end, super-luxury market appeared unscathed, officials said.

Russians are famous in Austria for filling the "January gap" -- the lull between the end of the New Year holidays and the start of school term breaks in February -- because the Russian Orthodox Christmas holidays fall in that period.

"The Russians tend to come and fill the empty beds in high-class hotels. This has been very valuable in previous years," said a spokesman for the Austrian hotel industry association.

Russian tourism dropped 7-10% in the summer months, and hoteliers fear the decline could accelerate in the much more important winter season as the rouble crisis gathers pace.

That would be a blow for a sector used to seeing fashion-minded Russians buy chic ski gear, frequent expensive shops and treat themselves to the best wine at fine restaurants.

Russian calls for citizens to holiday at home has also hurt. "The appeal finds fertile ground in many Russians' national pride," the Swiss tourism agency said.

The only bright spot can be found in elite resorts that draw a steady stream of Russian super rich.

"Most Russians who come to us are from the upper class. They are regular guests for years who book years in advance," said a spokesman for the tourism association in top-market Swiss resort St Moritz, which says it has not seen any decline in bookings.

Even in less exclusive ski towns, the Russians are known as bigger spenders than the Germans, British or Dutch.

"When Russians come for seven days, they ski for four days and then want to see something. They go to Munich or Innsbruck to go shopping," said one expert, noting their absence will also hurt retailers, taxi drivers and airlines.

Austria is trying to counter the trend with a mix of discounts and an advertising campaign to attract other visitors.

"There is still time to get something done short term," said Petra Nocker-Schwarzenbacher, who runs a four-star hotel in Salzburg and is head of the tourism section at the Austrian Chamber of Commerce.

Czechs lose business as Russians shun foreign travel

The crisis in Russia's relations with the West has hit Czech tourism, with the number of spend-happy Russian visitors dropping 14 % in the third quarter, data showed on Friday.

Some travel agencies and hotels in the main tourism hot spots, as well as the national airline, report even bigger falls since the crisis with Moscow over Ukraine intensified in the spring, and the Russian rouble hit heavy turbulence.

Foreign tourists are an important source of revenue for the Czech Republic, bringing in 4.3 billion euros ($5.3 billion) in 2012, the latest year for which official data is available.

Russians traditionally favor the Czech Republic, popular since the Communist era, and make up the second largest group of tourists after visitors from neighboring Germany.

"We saw a dip in May, which normally is a strong month, that was a sign something is going on," said Angela Fedorenko, a co-owner of Pragenter, a travel agency that specializes in bringing foreigners, mostly Russians, to Prague.

"Now, honestly, the situation is really bad. The drop is huge," she said, putting the fall-off at about 50-60%.

The Czech Statistical Bureau said the overall number of Russian tourists fell 14% year-on-year in the third quarter to 180,000, based on hotel data. However, this was counter-balanced by an increase in German, Polish and Slovakian tourists, meaning total arrivals rose 4%.

"The trend is that rich (Russians) keep coming, but the middle class is either worried or does not have enough money," said Fedorenko.

The crisis over Ukraine has exacerbated Russia's economic woes, with the rouble falling more than a fifth against a basket of currencies since the start of the year, making foreign travel less attractive for Russians.

Czech national carrier Czech Airlines, partially owned by Korean Air, had bet on the Russian market as part of its struggle to overcome losses in past years, but has suffered declines on both its Russian and Ukrainian routes this year.

"While in the first quarter there had been almost no year-on-year change, we can see a significant drop since April," said CSA spokesman Daniel Sabik.

Traffic to Russia fell 23% in September, while to Ukraine it was down 61%, he said.

"It means a drop in revenue by hundreds of millions of crowns and of course also (has) a negative impact on the company's results," he said.

Other European nations have reported similar falls, with ski resorts in Austria and Switzerland bracing for a sharp decline in Russian tourists over the coming months.


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