November 7, 2014 / 11:44 AM / 4 years ago

Russian tourism plunge chills traditional Alpine hosts

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

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

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 percent, said one tourism official who requested anonymity. The Swiss tourism agency expects overnight stays by Russian guests to fall 7-10 percent 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 percent 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.

Additional reporting by Oksana Kobzeva in Moscow and Angelika Gruber in Vienna; Writing by Michael Shields; Editing by Crispian Balmer

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