Ritzy Russians take the Adriatic up marktet



All of a sudden, there is a new brand of classy tourist at the Grand Hotel in Rimini. You recognise them a mile off, dressed from head to toe in designer outfits and jewellery. At the bureau de change they pull out $1,000 bills as though they were small change. Frequently they complain that their luxury suites are not luxurious enough, or that they are not satisfied with the rented limousine or motorboat.

They may act like spoiled film stars or fat-cat industrialists, but they are not. This new breed of holidaymakers raising the tone on Italy's distinctly tacky Adriatic coastline is the new aristocracy of Europe - the nouveaux riches of Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Nobody quite knows where their money comes from, but they show no shyness about spending it. The jewellers and boutique-owners of Rimini cannot believe their good fortune as family after family of Russians come away with Armani suits, Rolex watches and the like. Russian newspapers are on sale in nearly every newsagent.

"They are very good customers and we are delighted to have them," says Claudio Botton, director of the five-star Grand Hotel, one of the few oases of gilded elegance on a beachfront overwhelmed by hordes of package holiday-makers. The Russians are helping him stave off recession by paying up to pounds 220 a night for a room.

Ask the Russians where they get the money, and generally you will get an evasive answer. "I'm in business," said one 40-ish man travelling with his wife and son. What kind of business? "Foreign trade, import-export." What kind of trade? "Various things." You quickly understand this line of questioning won't get you very far.

Russian racketeers first came to the area two or three years ago, spending no time at all at the beach but stocking up instead on designer clothes, hi-fis, televisions and jewellery to sell on at a profit back home. By 1994 there was a direct charter flight leaving Moscow for Rimini every day.

This year the Russians have started taking holidays too, leading the wave of East Europeans heading west for their summer break. They are now the prime users of Rimini airport, overtaking the British.

The last time that Russians were rich and mobile enough to dally in Italy was at the turn of the century, although then they chose to come for the winter.

One suspects that in those days they raised fewer eyebrows. A few days ago there was a minor scandal on the beach when one Russian woman nonchalantly lowered her swimming costume to urinate before continuing on her way. "They may be super-rich, but they don't act like it," complained the beach attendant.