Au Revoir, Oligarchs
What will summer in the South of France look like without the Russians? Hint: Full of rich Americans.
On February 24, 2022, as Russian troops were preparing to invade Ukraine, billionaire Roman Ambramovich’s plane took off from Nice Côte d’Azur Airport back to Moscow. It would be the last time, in a long time, that he and his Boeing 787 would be in the French Riviera.
Russians have favored Côte d’Azur, the tony coastal corner of the French Mediterranean, since the mid-19th century, when the likes of King Leopold II of Belgium and Baroness Rothschild built castles and gargantuan estates.
Some Russians, like Dmitry Romanov’s parents (descendants of the House of Romanov), even fled here after the Bolshevik Revolution in the mid-1920s. Books like Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night recall balmy Mediterranean nights filled with raucous parties, champagne and extravagant feasts, and enormous amounts of wealth—most of which he experienced himself as an attendee.
Today, many oligarchs own seaside mansions in ritzy Cap d’Antibes and Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, including Ambramovich, businessman Suleiman Kerimov (known as ‘the Russian Great Gatsby’), Andrey Melnichenko, Alexander Ponomarenko, Victor Rashnikov, and more.
Known for summering here in their sprawling estates or aboard their yachts, these tycoons bring with them friends, staff, and family who provide revenue and jobs for yacht services, private catering, and chauffeurs.
Jean-Noel Aimasso, who’s chauffeured high-profile clients in the French Riviera for over 15 years as owner of Kingdom Côte d’Azur, says his wealthy Russian clients “typically spend €200,000 in two months for car services alone when they’re here.”
But this year, the Russian billionaires won’t be found in the French Riviera. Ambramovich’s Victorian-style Château de la Croë has already been seized by the French government. And it’s only a matter of time before other oligarchs’ homes are, too.
With so many blacklisted by the EU due to the war in Ukraine, it begs the question: What will summer in the South of France look like without the Russians?
The oligarchs’ houses might be empty, but the South of France will not. As tourism rebounds, hotels, travel companies, and yacht charters will be happily fed with a new wave of tourists, with their wallets wide open and dusting off their passports as we speak.
What’s happening today is a story we’ve heard before, albeit under different circumstances and a century ago. An unruly, evil dictator. A surging stock market (at least during the pandemic). A new generation of nouveau riche Americans flocking to European shores looking to rid themselves of their overflowing pockets. Which Roaring Twenties are we talking about?
“Americans are the new Russians. They are spending money like it’s going out of style,” says Jaclyn Sienna India, founder of membership-based luxury travel and lifestyle firm, Sienna Charles, whose clients are worth $500 million or more.
“We’d always have American clients candidly ask, ‘Is that where Russians travel to?’ because they didn’t want to go there. It’s funny the way their spending habits are now mimicking theirs, for all the reasons they didn’t want to go to a certain place before.”
Call it ostentatiousness, call it an influx of cash—however you spin it, many travelers are feeling a type of pent-up anxiety to get out there again and spend. India says: “People made money during the pandemic and they’re over subpar, middle-of-the-road experiences. Now, they’re going right for the top.”
According to the local tourism board, a new wave of high-income travelers from the U.S., northern Europe, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia has helped the region rebound.
And while Ambramovich’s plane might have left Nice’s tarmac, droves of private planes are waiting to land. The Nice Côte d’Azur Airport saw a 300% increase in private travel during the pandemic, most of it not from wealthy Russians. It won’t see much downside from their absence.
For the ultra-wealthy, especially the type traveling to the South of France, anything other than owning your own plane is child’s play.
“Brokering a plane is like flying coach,” India says. “Among my clients, I’m seeing a massive shift from chartering private jets to buying planes, but it’s taking some time. Due to supply-chain issues and demand, delivery is taking years. If you’re on the list for a plane, you get the call and have an hour to decide, or there are 40 other people who will happily take it from you. The tax breaks this year are incentivizing people to purchase assets.”
Nathan Foy, founder and CEO of Fortis, a chauffeur company that services ultra-high-net-worth clients in 141 countries, says that 90% of his clients fly private—on their own private jets. And even in the high Covid-risk 70+ age bracket, “the amount they’re actually moving in their planes is increasing.”
Sunil Metcalfe of luxury travel company Black Tomato says he is seeing “a real desire for classic luxury and a return to the sense of the familiar.” One of their top clients is taking her daughter, a high-school senior, back to France this summer. They’ve booked into both the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris and the Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat, where they’ve chartered a private yacht to explore the bay.
Monaco, another sanctuary for Russian billionaires, is also hotter than ever. Posh suites once booked by Russians for major events like Monaco Grand Prix and the Monaco Yacht Show are now being reserved by other nationals.
Just this month, India booked $30,000-a-night suites in Monte-Carlo for an American client. Meanwhile, the Hôtel Métropole Monte-Carlo is already 80% booked for July and August, ahead of the same period in 2019. And its prime suite, Carré D’Or—which starts at $14,000 a night in high season—has been scooped up for summer’s main events.
“We were completely booked for the Monaco Grand Prix by early April, with our top accommodations booked by American and British guests,” says general manager Serge Ethuin. The hotel seen a spike in demand from North America—their top market—and anticipates “high visitation from the U.S. this summer.”
More clear signs the money is coming from elsewhere? Global luxury charter and yacht sales firm IYC says 2022 bookings have already surpassed those of 2019.
What’s more, charter manager Fotis Geranios has seen an uptick in three- to five-week yacht charters, putting baseline travel expenses for a family or group of friends at half a million Euros or more. Case in point: Geranios has a multi-generational family booked on a 164ft yacht for three weeks this summer. “This specific family is spending €200,000 per week, and that’s just for the charter fee,” he says.
The trend aligns with Metcalfe’s findings, too. “We’re finding that this summer clients are enjoying a slower pace of travel, absorbing more of a singular destination during the trip and for longer.”
“Honestly, I’m surprised by this summer’s bookings,” says India. “I think people are really just so sick of being locked down. People, especially Americans, are spending the most and doing the most to the point I kept thinking, ‘What war?’”
Photo credits from top: Geco, courtesy of IYC; Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, Gerardo R Correa / EyeEm via Getty Images; Cannes, courtesy of Côte d’Azur Tourism Board; Carré D'Or suite, courtesy of Hôtel Métropole Monte-Carlo; Geco, courtesy of IYC.