ROME, Italy — Ischia and Capri, two tiny islands in the Gulf of Naples, are fighting over big money. That is, Russian money.
Ischia, a thermal baths and spa destination, complains that its Russian clients prefer shopping on the neighboring isle because it has a wider choice of luxury boutiques. On both islands, nearly all hotels and restaurants have menus written in Cyrillic and employ waiters whose mother tongue is Russian, while shops display price-tags in both euros and dollars.
It’s indeed worth the trouble. Luring tourists from Russia is a lucrative pursuit in Italy. Many of the most breathtaking and expensive locations have been virtually colonized by them.
They’re the former Soviet Union’s new nobility — billionaire businessmen, bankers and investors who travel across the peninsula in limousines, yachts and helicopters (for 2,000 euros an hour), picking the most romantic scenery for the purchase of dreamlike castles and sea manors.
Thanks to their cash (dollars, no credit cards), commercial ties between Italians and Russians are flourishing more than ever, helped along by the “special friendship” between Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Putin’s daughters are frequent guests of the Italian media tycoon-turned-politician.)
The numbers of Russians vacationing in the region has eclipsed that of Americans, who flooded the area after World War II.
In the first three months of this year, the Italian embassy in Moscow issued about 52,000 visas to Russians bound for Italy (for holiday and business). According to parallel data from Italy’s central bank on inbound global tourist flows, roughly 23,000 Americans arrived in Italy during the same period, along with about 23,500 French and about 9,000 Spaniards.
The Adriatic Riviera in the north, the elite Emerald Coast in Sardinia and the Amalfitan villages of Positano and Sorrento have transformed into settlements of Russian oligarchs who spend months in fashionable hotels, rent summer villas for 100,000 euros per month and are willing to disburse some 20 million euros to buy beach apartments.
Billionaires from Moscow kill time with Carnival-like parties and trips in private submarines.
On the Adriatic Riviera the Russian tourist demand is far above the supply of both hotels and flats.
In the city of Forte dei Marmi, two-thirds of the buildings are second houses of rich managers based in Moscow, according to leading daily Corriere della Sera, resulting in soaring real estate prices, which have forced the local authorities to pass a law securing part of the town’s homes to local residents.
The Italian tourist office has recorded a 30 percent rise in the number of Russians visiting the towns of Rimini and Riccione and charter flights from Moscow have increased five-fold in the last five years.
A recent survey carried-out by Global Refund found that Russians, who typically spend more on Made-in-Italy products — shoes, clothes, jewelry and sparkling wine called “Spumante” (Italy’s variation on Champagne) — represent 83 percent of the total tourist market share in terms of expenditure on goods. Russians spend more on products made in Italy than do citizens of any other European country.
Russian oligarchs and real estate investors particularly seem to favor Italy. The owner of the Chelsea soccer team, Roman Abramovich, is a regular client — and partner in — one of the most exclusive resorts in Sardinia, Forte Village. The resort features about 20 restaurants and 40 hotels and enjoys total revenue of 75 billion euros. Abramovich each year holds the Chelsea Soccer School, a summer camp where young professionals from the famous English team train to become junior Beckhams and Ronaldinhos.
Roman is a regular in the island region, often touring the exclusive shopping areas of Porto Cervo and Porto Rotondo either on his 170-meter-long “Luna” yacht or on a jet departing from the 1,200 square-meter mansion he recently purchased at Cala di Volpe, which among other extravagant facilities features a private port.
Other high-profile Russians have followed his example, spending millions of euros for an Italian estate.
Among them is Tariko Roustam (also known as the Vodka King), Alisher Usmanov (a manager at Gazprom, a Russian oil giant), Vasili Anisimov (a gold producer who bought his mansion from Berlusconi’s wife, Veronica Lario) and Ildar Karimov (a television tycoon). Owning a property in one of Sardinia’s top locations is a status-symbol for Russia’s jet-set society.
Another upcoming Russian destination in Italy is Alberobello, in the Apulia region. Here, real estate investors from Moscow and St. Petersburg are spending millions of euros to buy old farms and prehistoric white, cone-shaped stone village houses called “Trulli,” despite them being listed as UNESCO heritage sites.
Italian real estate agent Piero D’Amico underscored the importance of the Trulli: “They’re much more than houses, they represent a part of the local history, traditions, hospitality, scenery and culture” very much admired by Russian clients.
In the “Little Russia” of Italy, there’s even a place for spirituality: the church of Liscia di Vacca, a small town on the Emerald Coast, hosts orthodox masses celebrated by a real Russian pope.
Each morning locals are flabbergasted to see the parking place in front of the entrance crammed with Ferraris and Mercedes Benzes.