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Italy: Land of the rich Russian

Wealthy Muscovites and their countrymen are snapping up luxury Italian property and goods.

Italian houses
A woman walks in front of trulli-style houses in the village of Arberobello in the southern region of Apulia on May 21, 2009. Russian investors are paying millions for these UNESCO heritage sites in Italy. (Christophe Simon/Getty Images)

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.

Fishermen's boats moored in the Amalfi harbor in Pozzuoli, near Naples on June 9, 2008.
(Mario Laporta/Getty Images)

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.