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The Russians are coming and this time it’s good news. Just when it looked as though the tourist industry was about to join Spain’s growing list of calamities, an influx of Russian tourists has saved the season. They are even buying houses and reviving moribund bullfighting.
Their preferred destinations are the Costa Brava and Costa Dorada in Catalonia. About 70% of Russian tourists who go to Spain visit the north-east region, with Barcelona the must-see destination. About 750,000 are expected to visit Catalonia this year, 40% more than 2011, spending around €1.5bn (£1.2bn). These are not the oligarchs who were buying up mansions along the costa 10 years ago, but the new Russian middle class getting their first taste of foreign travel.
“Russia is now the sixth country of origin of tourists coming here, four places up on a year ago,” said Marian Muro, head of the Catalan tourism department.
“They come for beach holidays but lately we see more individuals who come for culture, gastronomy and to shop,” added Marlene Rodríguez of Iberrusia Travel.
They are also buying property. Spain, with an estimated 2m unsold homes, many in coastal areas, has plenty to spare.
Aksana Niamkovich, the editor of Tot en Rus, a Russian-language monthly with a circulation of 10,000 in Catalonia, said this is a new phenomenon. “This is the Russian middle class who have chosen Catalonia as either their first or second residence,” she said. “There are 2,000 Russians (including people from the former Soviet republics) registered as residents in Barcelona and 4,000 in the Costa Brava resort of Lloret de Mar. They are attracted by the climate and the fact that Barcelona is nearby and by the sea. Barcelona is also very cosmopolitan and Russians are very interested in the culture of poetry and painting here. It also cheaper to emigrate here than to England, France or Germany and easier to adapt. They could go to Italy but it’s too chaotic.”
The biggest concentration of Russians is along the Costa Dorada at Tarragona, where they are occupying 40% of hotel beds this summer, twice as many as the British. “The rise in the number of Russian tourists has compensated for the decline in Spanish ones,” Maria Eugenia Arbó, president of the local hotel association, told the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia.
Here, too, they are buying property, either as second residences or to rent out to fellow Russians. “We mostly sell to families who have come here for their holidays,” said Grigory Bekishev, a Russian who set up an estate agency in Salou on the Costa Dorada. “They are mostly second homes. Some are luxurious, some are normal flats. But they have to be new. They won’t buy anything old.”
“They usually buy flats for around €220,000 to €300,000 with a view of the sea,” said Manuel Gonzálvez, another Salou estate agent. “It’s a new market and a very interesting one as far as we can tell.”
Russians are also bullfighting fans and as the spectacle has been banned in Catalonia since the start of this year, “bloodless” corridas are organised to satisfy Russian demands. The tourists are bussed from the coast to the village of Alfara de Carles where a novice torero (performer) goes through the ritual of the bullfight without physically harming the bull.
Serafín Marín, the torero who fought the last bull in Barcelona’s El Monumental arena before the ban was enforced, travels to Alfara twice a week to go through his paces before a mainly Russian public whose interest in bullfighting extends to visits to farms where they learn about the toro bravo, bred for the ring. Tourists pay €90 each for the trip. Attempts to sell the package to Brits and Germans have found no takers, but the Russians keep coming.
Spain may be a new, exciting destination for Russia’s middle class. But it has long been a magnet for the Russian or “Eurasian” mafia. Leaked US diplomatic cables allege that Russian mobsters have been active in Spain since at least the mid-1990s. By 2004 they had become so pervasive that Spanish prosecutors were forced to devise a formal strategy to “behead” them.
Spain conducted two big operations against Russian gangsters based in Spain – codenamed Avispa (2005-2007) and Troika (2008-9) – raiding luxury villas and seizing assets. The Spanish police arrested more than 60 suspects, including the top mafia boss Gennady Petrov. Most damningly, the cables suggest the Russian mafia enjoys close links to officials in Moscow, with the trail apparently stretching to the top of the Kremlin. In 2008, for example, the Spanish authorities raided the Mallorca vacation mansion of Vladislav Reznik, a deputy in Valdimir Putin’s United Russia party; the previous year Petrov was recorded phoning the Russian trade attache from his luxury yacht. In 2010 one Spanish prosecutor dubbed Russia a “virtual mafia state” – a phrase that has stuck.