Russia's new rich join the holiday jet-set

Their wealth may be dubious but their taste in resorts is becoming choosy

Helen Womack
Saturday 10 August 1996 23:02

"There Are not so many countries left in the world where, on the streets of a strange city, you do not suddenly hear Russian speech. Indonesia is one of them. Our fellow tribesmen are still rare guests here. Which is surprising. Because there is plenty to see in Indonesia, plenty to wonder at, plenty on which to spend your money."

So begins in an article in Pyteshestvennik (The Traveller), a new magazine for rich Russians shopping for exotic holidays. The latest edition, which has a a picture of tigers copulating on the front cover, offers trips not only to the Far East but also to "America without Skyscrapers" (national parks of the US) and to the "Stone Age" (exploring New Guinea).

The Moscow Times claimed recently that for New Russians, who descended on the South of France when Soviet-era travel restrictions eased and they made their first money, St Tropez had become "passe", and they wanted more thrilling locations. Travel agents said that that was not quite true: there was still a demand for French resorts such as Cannes and Nice, where Russians have become known as big spenders like the Arabs. But wealthy Russians were also now looking farther afield for more adventurous holidays in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

"The main thing for my clients," said Igor Solovyov, director of Moscow's Flamingo Travel Agency, "is to get away from other Russians. They don't like to relax with their fellow-countrymen all around them."

The plebs go to the southern coast of Turkey, where package tours start at around pounds 320. Often they spend their holidays shopping, and bring back bundles of cheap clothes to sell in the kiosks in Moscow. But the elite go on Caribbean cruises or to health spas in Switzerland and Austria. "This place is still not overrun with Russians," said Mr Solovyov, handing me a brochure for the Bad Hall spa in Upper Austria.

The Flamingo Travel Agency is in the Petrovsky Passage, a fancy new shopping mall in central Moscow with branches of Nina Ricci and Kenzo. Thus it catches well-heeled Russians: not the mass of the population for whom summer holidays mean days of hard labour at the dacha harvesting potatoes and bottling fruit and vegetables for next winter, but the 5 per cent who constitute the jet set.

"Our clients are all VIPs," said Mr Solovyov, a psychologist and former KGB agent who went into the travel business after working in the personnel department of a large Russian bank. "We keep their secrets like a Swiss bank. I cannot name them or say how much they spend. But I can tell you they are very rich people - bankers, directors of companies, pop stars and the like. Three of them flew off in a private jet to ski in St Moritz last winter."

When pressed, Mr Solovyov grinned and admitted that many of his customers had made their fortunes illegally. "Quite a lot of them have 'criminal' stamped on their foreheads. But we are not interested in where their money comes from. As we say in Russian, 'The less you know, the better you sleep'."

Mr Solovyov scorns the old Soviet travel agency Intourist and arranges all the trips for his clients directly with hotels in the West. His assistant, Natasha Nechayeva, has the enviable job of "inspector", flying out to resorts to check that they are up to standard. She had just come back from Majorca - no building sites for Russians who thought they had booked luxury hotels.

But still the clients can be difficult to please. "I had a booking from a group of bandits," said Mr Solovyov. "They sent 40 of their wives and girlfriends off on a trip to Spain. The women complained that the sea was cold. It wasn't cold for anybody else but it was cold for them. I had to fix them up with a new holiday quickly. When they pay big money, they want guaranteed rest. Otherwise my head's on the block."

The Flamingo Travel Agency specialises in organising holidays for women. "In today's Russia," said Mr Solovyov, "not all the sharks are men. Women are succeeding in business too and in their spare time they want to pay attention to their health and looks." The trip to the Bad Hall spa in Austria, for example, is designed for women recovering after cosmetic surgery. It costs pounds 1,935. The agency also arranges to send the children of rich Russians abroad for education.

"Many of our clients have pots of money, but they do not really know how to spend it." said Mr Solovyov. "Our job is to help them get satisfaction."

For someone with about pounds 10,000 to spare, he suggests a trip to Miami followed by a cruise round the islands of the Caribbean. He has already sent Russian diamond valuers to this jewel of a location, and they had no complaints.

Flamingo Travel undertakes to obtain visas for its clients, so for them there is no humiliating wait in the queues at Western embassies. The Spanish are "bureaucratic" and the Germans "pedantic", according to Mr Solovyov. He does not bother to apply to the British embassy, which has recently extended its consulate to deal with a flood of Russians wanting to come to London, because he fears exposing his underworld clients to the risk of rejection at an interview with Home Office officials.

Russia, he believes, is going through a natural phase in its history when capital is accumulated, not always cleanly. "Later the mafia will become respectable, as it did in America," he said.

Travel helps Russians to integrate into the wider world. "For 70 years they were forbidden to go anywhere. Now they have an enormous thirst to see things for themselves, not just on videos."

Curiosity certainly propels Andrei Zaborsky, a Russian who has made his fortune through the legal enterprise of selling batteries. In Moscow, he works round the clock and lives without ostentation. But he splashes out on his holidays. This summer he has paid pounds 6,450 for a month in New York and Palm Beach, Florida.

"It's very exotic," he said as he packed his suitcases with positively childlike excitement.

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