Page last updated at 07:33 GMT, Saturday, 2 May 2009 08:33 UK

Slippery slope for Russian rich


By Katia Moskvitch
BBC, Courchevel

With her bright-red lipstick, new golden-hued ski suit and Chanel sunglasses, Tatiana looks ready to take on "glamorous Courchevel".

She came to this elite ski resort in the French Alps to enjoy the last days of this year's ski season. It took her weeks to prepare for the trip, to save money for just the "right" look and make sure everyone - everyone - in her Moscow office knew where she was going.

For her it was a question of prestige more than anything else.

Russians come in their thousands to Courchevel during the season.

It became known in Russian middle and upper-class circles when post-Soviet-era oligarchs headed there in huge numbers.

Shops at cuorchevel
Many shops have hired Russian-speaking staff

They didn't go to conquer the Alps, but rather to show off and spend their newly acquired millions in such a reckless way that soon almost every business in the area awaited their arrival.

Courchevel's boutiques, hotels and restaurants quickly began hiring Russian-speaking employees.

Russian oligarchs were known for renting the most expensive chalets in the area, starting at 30,000 euros (US$39,800) a week. For that price, they would also get a private cook, a housemaid and, of course, a stunning view of the Alps.

"During the last ski season, a typical Russian client of our boutique could spend about 100,000 euros ($132,600) at one time," says Juliette, a manager of a jewellery shop in the Courchevel valley that sells diamonds and Rolex watches.

But this year the situation has changed.

"Nowadays they tend to spend half of what they were spending before - only 50,000 euros ($66,000)," adds Juliette.

Despite this, there do not appear to be any fewer Russians in Courchevel than previous seasons.

They can still be heard chit-chatting in restaurants on picturesque mountain tops.

The owner of one such restaurant, the high-end Chalet de Pierre Yvette Saxe, says she is used to welcoming Russian clients.

Her website has three language versions: French, English and Russian. The Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin has lunched here, she says.

Ms Saxe says that although there are still many Russian skiers in Courchevel this year, they don't spend like they used to.

"In previous years, they didn't speak any French or English and didn't really know French cuisine or wines, so they just pointed to the most expensive item on the menu, thinking that more expensive meant better," she says.

courchevel hotel
Courchevel has many luxury hotels and chalets

"But this year, it's definitely not as crazy as before. Now Russians actually look at what they're ordering and look at the price, too. They don't have as many private parties.

"And it seems that many oligarchs stayed at home because of the crisis to work and make some money. Instead they have sent their families, who don't spend as much."

Having said that, she smiles and nods to two Russian businessmen who have came to the resort for the second time.

Leonid and Mikhail agree that the downturn has hit them hard.

"We had to choose a less expensive hotel and we check the price tag before buying something," says Mikhail.

"But we came here to ski, not to shop," adds his friend.

Although there are many other great ski resorts in the French Alps, and those who prefer steeper slopes may instead choose Megeve or the capital of alpine skiing, Chamonix, Courchevel remains the number-one tourist destination among the picky Russian public.

Many of the resort's employees agree that this year there has been a surge in middle-class Russian skiers such as Tatiana.

She has been looking forward to returning to Moscow ever since she set foot in Courchevel - just so she can tell her colleagues all about it.

"Everyone is so jealous that I am skiing here," she says.

"Why, it's the prestigious Courchevel!"

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