The Russian Invasion of the Alps

Anybody skiing in the Alps in the last twenty years can’t but help notice the large number of Russian tourists. Whether it is hearing Russian spoken in the resorts or Cyrillic estate agent listings, the Russians had clearly taken to the Alps in a big way since the fall of the Iron Curtain. But this was a popular invasion.

The Russian influx was welcomed in particular by the ski resorts. Wealthy Russians weren’t shy about buying chalets and luxury items. Russians also filled the quieter ski period in January because it coincided with the Russian Orthodox Christmas vacation season. Courchevel in January, in particular, is usually awash with Russian billionaires, their entourages and their dosh.

Resorts saw a downturn in the number of middle-class Russians after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. However it did not affect the oligarchs who continued to flood in to the Alps, even though the resorts were sometimes less welcoming to the oligarchs than hitherto. In 2018 Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea football club, applied for, but was denied, residency in Verbier. Swiss police arrested Russian businessman Vladislav Klyushin on his way to Zermatt in 2021, and extradited him to the USA on charges of commercial espionage.

None the less, in the winter season 2018/19 Russians spent 140,000 night stays in hotels in the French Three Valleys resorts alone. Switzerland had 195,000 Russian night stays in the same season, with the main destinations being Verbier, Zermatt, St Moritz and Davos. Resorts in the Tyrol such as St Anton and Ischgl were particularly popular with a segment of the Russian market who liked the extensive pistes and hard core apres ski. Despite a small dip in 2014/15, luxury chalets in the main ski resorts continue to be purchased by wealthy Russians, or on behalf of wealthy Russians.

And it is not only wealthy and middle class Russians who enjoy the Alps. Le Monde established that Russian spooks have long favoured the Haute Savoie as a base for targeted assassinations around Europe, including that by the agents who planned the UK poisoning of ex Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March 2018.

Outside the Alps the Bulgarian ski resorts, such as Borovets and Bansko, have always been popular winter destinations for Russians. Before the Iron Curtain came down, I met many Russians in my ski trips to the country. There is a strong cultural bond between the people of Russia and the people of Bulgaria, and skiing in Bulgaria is significantly cheaper than Alpine ski resorts. Consequently Russian tourists have continued to flock to Bulgaria for winter sports even after the Iron Curtain came down and opened up the Alps as a ski destination. In the 2021/22 season Russian tourists came in even larger numbers because Bulgaria recognises Russian-made COVID vaccines.

The invasion of Ukraine by the Russian military in February 2022 has changed everything for Russian winter tourists. For the foreseeable future, it is going to be impractical for Russians to get to the Alps, and – in any case – not affordable for many of them as the rouble plunges against the Euro and the Russian economy goes into recession. For Russian tourists on holiday in Europe and caught unaware by the invasion, the sanctions from the EU and Switzerland have left tens of thousands stranded in European ski resorts. Middle class Russians face an expensive trip home since all flights out of the EU to Russia have been grounded. Additionally many ATMs and  establishments will no longer approve Russian debit and credit cards.

Switzerland has long been a popular destination for the wealthy, but their presence is no longer as welcome as it once was. The 2022 Verbier Festival has cancelled all Russian artists and the Music Director, Valery Gergiev, a prominent Putin apologist, has been asked to resign. Aligning with EU restrictions, eight Russian oligarchs resident in Switzerland with close ties to Putin have received travel bans. Many oligarchs will see their chalets sequestrated. At least a dozen private planes owned by wealthy Russians are stranded at Basel airport. Billions of dollars worth of assets managed or held by Swiss banks on behalf of wealthy Russians have been frozen.

Still, Belarus, North Korea, Syria and Eritrea remain friendly to the Russian regime and will no doubt welcome winter tourists from Russia – although the skiing options are limited. But there’s always Sochi, where the biggest ski resort, Krasnaya Polyana, has 102 km of piste and still serves Russian vodka.

Share Button

Isenau Update 2022

The slopes at Les Diablerets above Les Mazots

The pre-eminent ski area in the Vaud Alps is the area that contains the runs above Villars, Gryon and Les Diablerets. The Les Diablerets section was much improved by the installation of a fast gondola in 2018, replacing the ricketty old chairlift up to Les Mazots. As well as enhancing the Le Meilleret ski area, it has made Les Diablerets something of a tobogganist’s paradise, providing access to a scenic 7km toboggan run. Les Mazots itself has a new cafe opposite the Les Mazots restaurant.

From Les Mazots you can easily see the cable car ascend up to the Glacier 3000 ski area on the Diablerets Glacier. However to get to the glacier you need to take the bus that runs from Les Diablerets to Gstaad and get off at the Col du Pillon stop.

It wasn’t always so. Until a few years ago there was a ski area in les Diablerets on the opposite side of the valley from Le Meilleret known as Isenau. Since 1953 it had been served by a wonderful little gondola, but the cost of maintenance proved too high and, without funding for a replacement, the ski area closed down a few years ago. As well as being a wonderful ski area, it also provided a ski connection to Col du Pillon and Glacier 3000. It was therefore possible to use a lift-served ski area that ran all the way from Villars-sur-Ollon to Reusch, near Gstaad.

Old Isenau Gondola

Ever since it closed there has been a campaign to build a new lift on the Isenau, but to date it has foundered on a number of issues, not least funding. However in December 2021, owners of the five lifts on the Isenau ski area, Télé Villars-Gryon-Diablerets SA, have transferred ownership to Diablerets-Isenau 360° Cooperative Society (SCOOP).

This takeover marks an important new step towards the rehabilitation of the area, after the acquisition by SCOOP of the buildings and land at the start and finish of the old gondola last November and the reopening of a refreshment bar at the summit of Isenau.

Plans are being developed to re-develop the lift system, but this a long-term project and the re-opening of Isenau as a ski area is still some years away. At least now it is looking like a concrete possibility.

Share Button

Snow’n’Rail 2021-22

In previous years I have updated my SwissWinterSports web site with the latest information on the popular Snow’n’Rail scheme, but this year I have not been able to get the information from the SBB. However information is available on the SBB’s web site.

For those of you unfamiliar with the scheme, you can get a combined 1, 2 or 6 day rail and lift pass at a discount from Swiss Railway stations, and can also load up details on a Swiss Pass which can also, conveniently, be used as a ski pass.

Around 30 or so of the leading resorts participate in the scheme, and it varies slightly from one season to the next. Prices might go up (and sometimes even come down) and some resorts may drop out or join in the scheme. Unfortunately my web site still has last years prices and – from a cursory examination – still has the right resorts listed as participants. However do check with the official site before planning your next trip using the scheme. I will manually update the information over the Xmas break.

What my site is still good for, however, is telling you the best way to get to the resorts by public transport, a rough idea of how long it will take, how many changes you need to make, which stop to take and what to expect when you get there. Also the weather forecast for the next few days, provided as ever by the excellent snow-forecast.com.

It’s another strange season again, but so far Swiss resorts remain open and have more facilities open than they did for most of last season. Let’s hope it lasts!

Stay safe!

Share Button

Inghams recommend Switzerland for skiing

With covid in mind, Inghams, the leading ski holiday operator, have recommended Switzerland as a good choice for a ski holiday this season, singling out Davos, Grindelwald, Klosters, Murren, Saas Fee, St Moritz, Wengen and Zermatt.

Everyone should know that Switzerland is probably the best country in the world to visit for a ski holiday, but the strength of the Swiss Franc has put increasing numbers of cost-conscious tourists off in recent years. However Switzerland has uniquely been able to maintain ski facilities throughout the pandemic, and continue to look like the most likely destination to guarantee a great ski experience this winter.

Details of Ingham holidays are at Inghams web site. Additionally they have a really good Coronavirus hub, letting you know what coronavirus restrictions apply in all of the destinations they serve.

Share Button