A swarm of international flags flutters over Le Croisette, the heart of the elegant resort town of Courchevel in the French Alps, where super-rich New Yorkers, celebrities (think Robbie Williams, Elton John and Windsor’s William and Kate) and oligarchs gather for après-ski every season -Champagne.
But in early March, just days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the flag of the Russian Federation was lowered.
“The tourism office has been slammed by a campaign to take it down,” Gabriella Le Breton, author of The Ultimate Ski Book: Legends, Resorts, Lifestyle & More, told The Post. “It was a huge symbolic moment.”
In recent decades, the resort — made up of four interconnected villages and dozens of massive chalets, each worth tens of millions of dollars — has become so synonymous with wealthy Russians that Western visitors have nicknamed it Courchevelski. The Russians themselves call it Kushevelevo.
However, now the resort is rapidly losing its Russian accent as the sanctions bring the lives of many oligarchs to a halt.
“It was weird and surreal to be in Courchevel when Russia invaded Ukraine,” said a wealthy Briton who visited the resort this season, asking not to be identified. “When we arrived, the oligarchs were there in full force. A family in our hotel wore red Bogner ski outfits with the inscription Russian Ski Team from head to toe. We saw her in the shoe room every morning. Shortly after the invasion? They were a lot more discreet with their clothes.”
Courchevel was founded from scratch by tourism-hungry French authorities after World War II to develop a comprehensive resort in a key location.
Today, according to Knight Frank’s Ski Property Report 2022, Courchevel has the highest daily rent of any major resort in the region, averaging $584 per night (closest rival: Verbier at $524). But prices at key venues like Jardin Alpin can reach hundreds of thousands a week.
However, the resort’s origins were more egalitarian.
Master planner Laurent Chappis built several settlements, named for their alleged height in metres: 1850 (the best location), 1650, 1550 and 1300. Huddled together on a huge, easily navigable bowl, it was intended to be a ski center for everyone to enjoy.
It worked for a while — or at least until uber-oligarch Roman Abramovich landed there in the 1990s, says ski expert Le Breton.
“He reportedly asked the mayor if he could buy all of Courchevel, but he was turned down,” she said.
Instead, the currently-sanctioned billionaire did the next best thing, rushing around snapping up masses of chalets to drive up prices so he and his oligarch cronies would be the only ones who could afford a home there.
For wealthy Russians, the appeal was obvious: unlike Swiss chalets and some locations in Austria, expat owners are not legally required to rent out their homes for a specific period of time each year. Instead, they can mothball them and only use them for a few weeks if they so choose. Courchevel’s origins of just adding water are appealing too, as it’s easier to build here than old-fashioned villages. The price per square foot for a new build in Courchevel 1850 is around $3,588.
Ease of arrival is another factor.
“You can get to your private jet from your accommodation in 15 minutes – you can ski onto the runway. I did it,” said Le Breton. “Or you can have your butler set out your skis so that when you land you can ski straight to the restaurant for oysters and champagne.”
On the other hand, Le Breton said that many Russians who come to Courchevel don’t want to soil their ski suits: “Talk to a ski instructor and they will tell you that a group of Russians will book a ski instructor for each member of the group. and they wake up every morning and they sit in the boot room all day with a glass of water, waiting for one of the group members to move and actually ski.”
There are other reasons to come, too: A long-time visitor remarked that Russians see skiing as a networking hobby, a political pow-wow spot. And it’s not just Russia’s elite that has flocked there — one percent from its former republics have followed, including Ukraine.
Its upper crust was known to be there en masse in early March 2020 and is said to have brought COVID-19 back from the slopes – so much so that it earned the nickname “Courchevel virus” at the start of the pandemic.
And as a result of COVID-19, Russia’s numbers in Courchevel were already weakened: the EU doesn’t recognize Sputnik-V vaccines in its pandemic rules, so anyone vaccinated with them was barred from entering the country.
However, the so-called Globo-Russians — think anyone rich enough to stack passports — were still in force during their peak season, the first two weeks of January.
It’s purposely difficult to confirm the names of oligarchic chalet owners here – most being bought up by complex corporate structures. French media reports confirm that railroad magnate and billionaire Nikita Mishin owns the $7,000-a-night, five-bedroom chalet called Lys Martagon (through a Luxembourg shell company, of course). Runaway Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov — recently sentenced in Moscow to 15 years in prison – owned a property here.
But one of the area’s biggest whales appears to belong to insurance magnate Nikolai Sarkisov, who reportedly bought the nearly 30,000-square-foot chalet called Apopka last year.
He teamed up with another businessman to build it, but after money problems, the unfinished chalet went bankrupt — so Sarkisov salvaged it at a reported price of around $26.4 million. It’s an ideal setting for Ilona Kotelyukh, his 30-year-old Instagram influencer wife, to snap some snaps.
Courchevel’s oversized chalets are far more spacious than anything available at other five-star resorts, says Rupert Longsdon of the Oxford Ski Company, which offers homes for $300,000 a week.
“At some other resorts, the larger chalets are around 13,000 square feet, but here they could be upwards of 30,000 square feet. The whole resort is like an iceberg – what you see above ground is just the beginning.”
The other big plus of staying in a chalet is of course privacy.
“It’s easier for them to smuggle their hookers into a chalet than into a hotel,” said an insider.
It’s not just gossip either. 2007 French courts broke up a prostitution ring that drove young women from Moscow to Cannes, St. Tropez and Courchevel. Russian billionaire and former Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov was arrested during his Christmas party in Courchevel that year and accused of procuring hookers for his guests, but he was later released without charge.
But Ceri Tinley, who runs Consensio, another luxury chalet specialist, says Russian is an integral part of the resort’s economy because its peak season, the two-week period in early January, which coincides with Orthodox Christmas, would otherwise be a slow week, like the rest of Europe is recovering from the holiday surplus.
About 40% of her Courchevel customers are Russian each year, but thanks to vaccination regulations, that number has dropped to about 10% this winter, she says. Now, thanks to sanctions, even fewer Russians are expected.
She recalls the impact of the smaller set of sanctions imposed after the Crimean invasion. In this case, the oligarchs could come and go, but chose not to leave their country – and many upper-middle-class Russians dutifully followed their example, choosing instead to go skiing somewhere like Sochi.
“One of my owners was out there last week and was sitting in a restaurant and saw that the Russians were sitting in the corner very discreetly and quietly and not talking loudly, which is unusual,” she said. “Even in a very pro-Russian place like Courchevel, they have to worry about anti-Russian sentiment.”
But real estate investors looking to acquire Russian-owned properties cheaply will be disappointed – at least for now, real estate experts said.
“All these post-COVID sky markets have changed dramatically – they’re very, very strong,” said Tal Alexander of Douglas Elliman, who has just been to Courchevel for the first time. “I haven’t heard anything about fire sales or Russians wanting to sell properties. The market does not last compared to actual demand.”
But Oxford Ski’s Rupert Longsdon expects that to change.
“There will be property from Russians that we haven’t heard of that will be confiscated,” he warned. “I’m sure that will happen, and some will probably be sitting in the market.”
https://nypost.com/2022/03/30/oligarch-billions-are-vanishing-from-french-alps-resort/ Oligarch billions are disappearing from resorts in the French Alps