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From Russia with cash

(Rezo)

Switzerland is becoming the destination of choice for an increasing number of Russian business people and tourists.

Russia was the main guest of honour at this summer's Fêtes de Genève festival, which ended on Sunday. This is just one of many ongoing Swiss initiatives, both at local and national level, to seduce Russian visitors.

"Every major designer shop in Geneva has one member of staff who speaks Russian and when I walk along the rue du Rhône [the main shopping street], I very often hear people speaking my language," Nadia Sikorsky, editor of the Swiss-based Russian website Nasha Gazeta (Our Paper), told swissinfo.

The internet news site was recently launched by Edipresse, Switzerland's second largest press group, for Russian residents and tourists in the Lake Geneva region.

This year Russian visitors to the Geneva region should top 100,000 overnight stays – an increase of 25 per cent on 2007 – and 328,000 stays for the whole of Switzerland.

"The number of Russian visitors is increasing dramatically, at a similar rate to tourists from the Gulf States, India and China," said François Bryand, managing director of Geneva Tourism.

"They are a mixed group of clients who choose Geneva and Switzerland for business and leisure. They want top-class destinations."

Whirlwind tour

"Apart from the peace and quiet – far from their busy lives in Moscow – and the beauty of the Swiss tourist sites, the Russians like being able to tour Switzerland in less than two weeks," said Sikorsky.

But these new wealthy tourists can also be very demanding, she added.

"There are not enough five-star hotels in certain tourist regions, like Verbier. The Verbier classical music festival, in which numerous Russian musicians participate, could appeal to many more Russian music fans," she said.

"And the welcome here is not always up to what you can expect in certain parts of Asia, for example. In this respect, Switzerland is losing its reputation."

Several thousand Russians are thought to be resident in the Lake Geneva area.

"The Russian consulate in Geneva has registered some 2,000 people but many more live in the region," said Sikorsky.

Turbulent years

The situation has evolved quite considerably over recent years, explained Guy Mettan, president of the French-speaking section of the Swiss-Russian Chamber of Commerce.

"Over the past three to four years we have witnessed a renewed presence of Russians in Switzerland, after a quiet period between 1998 and 2005," he said.

Those years were marked by a number of episodes between both countries, such as the trial of businessman Sergei Mikhailov, who was eventually acquitted and compensated by the Geneva courts, and the Überlingen plane disaster, in which 71 Russians died in Swiss-controlled air space.

During that time London quickly became the number one destination for rich Russians.

"Today the situation has turned around. Britain is becoming less popular with the Russians and Switzerland is once again in their good books," said Mettan.

This rapprochement was strengthened with the visit of Economics Minister Doris Leuthard to Moscow in July.

Geneva and Zurich are already the bases for important figures of the Russian economy, such as Viktor Vekselberg, head of Renova, who resides in Zurich and is advised by Thomas Borer, former Swiss ambassador to Berlin.

"And a large share of Russia's oil is traded in Geneva," said Mettan.

The clichés of corrupt vodka-swigging Russian businessmen with their mafia connections have become completely outdated, he added.

"The Russian economy is poised to attain western standards. Today it offers some fantastic investor opportunities," said Mettan.

swissinfo, based on an article in French by Frédéric Burnand in Geneva

Overnight stays in Geneva in 2007

(by nationality and changes since 2006)

1. Swiss (561,723/7.9%)

2. British (275,459/-0.2%)

3. American (261,117/13.8%)

4. French (239,466/6.8%)

5. Gulf States (161,611/22.7%)

6. German (139,077/7.2%)

7. Italian (100.923/6.4%)

8. Spanish (96,652/8.4%)

9. Russian (73,746/22.8%)

end of infobox

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