It started with Courchevel.
That French ski resort has long relied on ruble-splashing oligarchs to shore up its V.I.P. P&L, ever since Roman Abramovich reportedly touched down there and loved it so much he asked the mayor if he could buy the whole thing. (He had to settle for a portion—no wonder it’s nicknamed “Kushevelevo” or “Courchevelski.”)
As soon as Russia invaded Ukraine, oligarchs and their ilk all but disappeared from the slopes, with tourist traffic slumping by 90 percent according to locals. That precipitous drop-off has been repeated across the world since then: though overall international travel is down around 35 percent versus pre-pandemic levels, Russian holiday bookings abroad have plummeted by 75 percent, according to the BBC.
“I was in Courchevel at the end of March, and I didn’t hear one Russian voice, which is astonishing,” says a wealthy villa broker from the Mediterranean region. She focuses on properties in and around the French Riviera, typically a mainstay for Moscow’s elite, but says her core clientele is skipping cashed-up playgrounds like that.
The Russian presence in St. Barts, in the Caribbean, has been minimal, too. “Say there are 10 rich Russian villa owners on the island? We saw one of them, and he came for two or three days,” says a hotelier there, with a shrug. “There have been no visas issued since the beginning of this huge mess.”
Indeed, the obstacles to Russian tourism aren’t solely social opprobrium. The E.U.’s refusal to recognize Sputnik V as an acceptable coronavirus jab spiked plans for some of the Russia-based rich; others got snared in bureaucratic red tape. Many wealthy Russians sidestepped Schengen-area visa requirements by snaring second citizenship in Malta, which allows them to roam this E.U. area without red tape, according to Reaz Jafri, an immigration expert with Dasein Advisors. All such applications were suspended on March 2. “Even for people who’d been vetted, the financial due diligence was done,” Jafri says, citing several of his own clients. “Their only crime was that they were Russian.”
So where are the affluent Russians spending their money—and their summer—this year?
Many wealthy Muscovites have opted to avoid Europe entirely, at least according to travel specialist Jaclyn Sienna India. “Several oligarchs we book travel for have relocated to Kazakhstan—it’s safe and beautiful, and feels like home to them,” she says. “I don’t think anyone knows how long they’re going to be there, or what’s going on. They’re definitely looking at it as their new home base.” The Russians are congregating in cities, versus the resorts on the Caspian Sea, which are popular with the locals.
There are ample commercial air connections still operating to the ’Stans, especially considering the lack of flights from Russia to Europe. Unlike with most of Europe, most travel to the ’Stan countries is visa-free (as is the case with Turkey, another wealthy-Muscovite hot spot). Catherine Heald of the travel agency Remote Lands is in that area now, and says that Russians form the bulk of all the tourists she meets. “They might not feel so welcome in Greece or the Hamptons, but they do here, so they’re here en masse,” says Heald. Sure, the Caspian Riviera might not quite match the Côte d’Azur, but for summer 2022, it’ll do.
There is one destination in Europe, though, where the Russian presence remains strong, albeit rather more low-key than in previous summer seasons: Forte dei Marmi, on the Tuscan coast. Many Russians had decamped to their discreet, high-walled villas here some time ago, to wait out the pandemic, and they have no plans to leave anytime soon.
This glamour-puss resort has a cachet that dates back to the Dolce Vita era: Giorgio Armani has a home here, as does the Castiglioni family, which owns the fashion brand Marni, while the Agnellis’ former 19-bedroom villa is now a hotel.
It was long the preserve mostly of wealthy Milanese and Torinese families, but that changed two decades ago, according to one villa-rental specialist based nearby. He explains that Russia’s presence in the resort was sparked by lauded film director Nikita Mikhalkov, who bought a home here then. Many others soon followed; it didn’t hurt that Viareggio, a short drive along the coast, has become the super-yacht-building hub of the world.
“Russians don’t love rocky beaches, which is why there are so few of them on the Amalfi Coast,” says Gianluca Ziveri, who owns an agency that rents Italian villas. The wide sandy beaches of Forte dei Marmi, mostly covered with scene-y, stiletto-friendly beach clubs, are far more appealing for that reason.
Some five-star hotels, such as La Datcha in Forte dei Marmi, now specialize in Russian guests. The 10-room villa, which accommodates up to 20 guests and charges up to $13,500 per night, is owned by sanctioned oligarch Oleg Tinkov.
Others, though, are shying away from this niche.
“Russian clients have a history of leaving their mark where they’re staying,” says one travel agent. “They feel right at home—which in this case means they don’t mind breaking a piece of furniture, glassware, an artwork—you name it.” One Forte dei Marmi–based hotelier refused to allow the return of one Russian family this summer after they wrecked their suite last year, including a huge marble table. “They’re just not polite,” she sniffs. “They don’t care about anything.”
Most of Forte dei Marmi’s Russian clientele, though, prefer a private villa. “I think 30 percent of the properties here now are owned by Russians,” adds the broker based nearby, noting that many of those homeowners were already in residence when war broke out. They mostly own in the Vittoria Apuana area of town, a less historic area to the west along the water. “Russians want to completely renovate any home they buy, and they don’t mind whether or not they have permission to do it.”
Rental interest remains strong here, too: that villa specialist says that 70 percent of the Russian inquiries he’s receiving right now are for Forte dei Marmi.
Wealthy Ukrainians have long vacationed in many of the same spots as Russians have, Forte included. This summer, though, Italians are shying away from renting to them. “The villa owners are very worried about the situation there, the consequences of the war. They worry about Ukrainian families—what if the war goes on for a long time, the owners say, how can they pay to keep renting our property?”
At least one well-known Ukrainian owns a home here: Volodymyr Zelensky. “He has a house in the Vittoria Apuana neighborhood, just a few minutes walk away from mine,” says Julius Pisati, a Milanese man who’s been going to Forte dei Marmi his entire life. Says another local, “He bought it four or five years ago, a new build, before he was a politician, just someone who worked on Ukrainian TV. It’s a normal villa, though—not 10 million euros, but more like 1 or 1.5 million.”
It very well might be one of the only homes in this idyllic resort town that will remain empty this summer.
As he says, Mark Ellwood focuses on “froth in all its forms.” He has written for AIR MAIL about the turmoil inside Moda Operandi. He is also a columnist for Bloomberg Pursuits, the creator and a co-host of Bloomberg’s Travel Genius podcast, and the author of Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World