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Russia: Tourists From East Spending Big In Vienna

By Sue Tapply

Vienna, 18 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The nouveau riche of Russia are flocking in increasing numbers to Vienna to spend their wealth.

An RFE/RL correspondent in the Austrian capital reports that figures just released by the Austrian Tax-free Shopping association show that in 1996, Russians spent more money in Vienna than Americans.

In Vienna's city center, Russian visitors spent over 500 dollars per capita on average last year, accounting for 13.2 percent of the tourist money spent in the city during the year. Americans can only take credit for spending 7.1 percent.

The Russians, as well as Ukrainians and Belarusians, have made a visible impact on the charming but otherwise rather sedate Danube metropolis. With their extravagant tastes in gold jewellery, furs, and top-price Italian clothing by Armani and other exclusive designers, they are not hard to spot.

And the Semmering, Vienna's traditional recreation area on the outskirts of the city, reverberates to boisterous Russian-style entertainment, with wild dance nights, much consumption of vodka and breaking of glasses.

"They really let their hair down", said Eduard Aberham, director of the smart Panhans Hotel, in an interview with the Vienna daily "Kurier".

Among the Panhans' international guests already this year have been a number of wealthy neo-capitalists from Minsk, Moscow and Novosibirsk, and according to the "Kurier", they make up one-tenth of the hotel's guests.

At the start of the 1990s, a few holiday travelers from the former Soviet Union arrived at Panhans by chance, but last year, hundreds registered. Panhan's reception book shows the most common professions listed are businessman, teacher, housewife or student. But that doesn't stop them from paying with notes of 5,000 Austrian schillings -- about 420 dollars.

When they tire of taking fresh air in the Semmering, many of them choose either to spend their time in the hotel's own beauty spa, or they hire a chauffeur to drive them to Vienna's shopping district.

Eduard Aberham said "They are average people who have made an above-average amount of money because of the changes. Money doesn't stink, whether its Russian roubles or American dollars."

Aberham said his Russian visitors consider comfort to be of utmost importance. And since few of them speak either English or French, menus are also written in Russian. Vladimir Khomiakov, a 42-year-old Belarusian, is assigned to act as special host for the guests, and he caters for regional tastes. Sometimes, for example, Khomiakov finds that Ukrainian guests prefer not to sit next to Russians in the dining room, and he tactfully makes the arrangements. There's even a Russian night watchman.

RFE/RL's correspondent reports in 1993, over 200,000 people from the former Soviet Union spent their holidays in Austria. Within two years this number had risen by nearly 30 per cent to almost 270,000.

The Austrian tourist industry wants to see more of these wealthy easterners. Erich Scabus, tourism manager for Lower Austria, says that for Germans, Austria might rate as the last Alpine republic, but for East European tourists it's the first.

Aberham sees this "ex-Soviet invasion" as a possible new trend, with waves of Russians hitting Austria first, then spreading across to other European resorts.