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Free-spending Russians flock to St Moritz

AFP · 18 Jan 2015, 08:50

Published: 18 Jan 2015 08:50 GMT+01:00

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Undeterred by the rouble crisis following Western sanctions in the wake of Moscow's annexation of Crimea, the loyal Russian clientele of one of the world's most glamourous winter spots say nothing will make them give up their favourite watering holes.

"I have been coming here for 10 years and I am not ready to change my habits," exclaimed Leonid, a 47-year-old based in London's financial district.

Although other parts of Switzerland have seen a drop in Russian arrivals of up to 30 percent, Saint Moritz is practically untouched.

That situation could still change after the Swiss franc took flight this week, making the already pricey country 15 percent more expensive for foreigners overnight.

"Thursday marked the beginning of a difficult period for Swiss tourism," said Veronique Kanel, a spokeswoman for the country's national tourism organization, adding she expected an increase in cancellations.

Earlier in the week though, Leonid seemed carefree.

Sitting at the posh Mathis restaurant along with his wife and two children, he ordered four truffle pizzas at 98 Swiss francs (100 euros, $115) a piece.

They are on a long free-spending holiday and, like many other well-heeled Russians, are unfazed by the financial crisis back home.

Saint Moritz locals are meanwhile laughing all the way to the bank.

"A crisis? I have between five and 10 percent more Russian clients than usual. They account for two-thirds of my current turnover," said Reto Mathis, head of the high-end restaurant, which specialises in caviar and truffles.

Russia's national currency has lost some 16 percent against the dollar since the start of the year after plummeting around 41 percent in 2014 due to the sanctions and tumbling oil prices.

Many Russians have seen the value of their assets and their incomes plunge, but those with holdings in euros and dollars have not been impacted.

"With our nine five-star hotels, we offer our clients the best services possible," said Ariane Ehrat, the head of the tourism office for the Engadin-St Moritz region.

The origins of the winter resort date back to September 1864, when local hotel pioneer Johannes Badrutt made a wager with four British summer guests: they should return in winter and, in the event that the town was not to their liking, he would reimburse their travel costs.

That paved the way for a slew of firsts in St Moritz: the first electric arc lamps in Switzerland were installed in 1878 at the Kulm Hotel, the first curling tournament on the continent was held here in 1880, followed by the first European Ice-Skating Championships in 1882.

The Kulm Hotel, built in 1856 and offering stunning lakeside and mountain views, is one of the world's ritziest hotels. Its director Heinz Hunkeler says he expects to see no more than an eight percent cancellation rate among Russians this season.

"Our clients certainly have the means but some have remained in Sochi out of patriotism," he said referring to the Caucasus resort city which hosted Winter Olympics last February.

Lesser known St Moritz establishments such as the three star Piz Hotel echoed that optimism.

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"I'm not sure we will feel any impact, in any case it will be less than eight percent," said Piz managing director Guler Bozkirac.

However, in what could be a major deterrent for less well-heeled tourists, Switzerland's central bank in a shock move Thursday scrapped a three-year bid to hold down the value of its currency, sending the franc soaring against the euro and dollar.

That move makes the Alpine nation, already expensive for foreign visitors, even more so.

Russian tourists last year notched up 578,656 overnight stays in Swiss hotels -- with about half of them recorded in the winter season.

This winter, Swiss Tourism expects this to fall by between 10 and 30 percent against the corresponding season the previous year.

The body is courting tourists from other countries who have recently been flocking to Switzerland in droves, including China, Brazil and Gulf countries.

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