From Glasnost to Gleneagles - why the Russians are rushing to Scotland

THEY love whisky, haggis, castles, horse-riding and Robert Burns - and they have become the biggest growth market in Scottish tourism.

So many well-heeled Russians are now coming to Scotland to spend their money that hoteliers are being forced to teach their staff the language so they can communicate with the thousands of holidaymakers from the former Soviet superstate.

Some hotels have even been hiring Russian staff in an attempt to ease communication with the new set of big-spending guests, many of whom are unable to speak English.

The luxury Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire has 500 nights worth of Russian bookings over the next 12 months, compared with none at all in the previous year.

The boom could in part be down to the so-called "Abramovich effect", named after Roman Abramovich, the nouveau-riche Russian oil billionaire who bought Chelsea football club.

The Sheraton Grande Hotel and Spa and the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh and Ayr’s Westin Turnberry Resort have all racked up record numbers of bookings.

The Russians are helping the industry to recover the ground it lost by the slump in the American market following the foot-and-mouth crisis and the 11 September terrorist attacks.

Industry leaders said last night that Scottish hoteliers were bracing themselves for an even greater surge of Russian visitors when Transaero airline launches a four-hour service next month, flying on Wednesdays between Edinburgh and Moscow’s new Domodedovo international airport.

The connection is expected to give a substantial boost to the 17,000 Russian tourists who visited Edinburgh in 2002, as well as encouraging more Scots to visit Moscow.

Dorothy Welsh, the marketing director of Gleneagles Hotel, said that the majority of Russians were visiting Scotland for its history and scenery.

"Moscow has a dense population, so Perth is a breath of fresh air in comparison. They seem to love the outdoors, with horse-riding and falconry being their favourite pursuits, rather than golf. They are tending to have long stays of at least ten days at a time and spend a lot on whisky and shopping."

Ms Welsh added: "We have 500 Russian bed-nights this year from none the previous year. Our new concierge is now having Russian lessons so we can communicate, because most of the guests over 45 are unable to speak English.

"I think the Russians are now visiting Scotland because they have the money as their economy continues to grow and because they are seeking an alternative to London."

Peter Murphy, the general manager of Edinburgh’s Sheraton Grande Hotel and Spa, said that he was surprised to receive 200 bookings from Russians this year.

"When I was asked to go over to Russia to conduct a presentation to help to market Scotland, I went but thought it was a dead duck.

"Yet it has turned out to be absolutely brilliant, as we have had a lot of bookings. They spend lots of money and tend to be looking for special experiences, so the spa is what attracts them to our hotel.

"They are upper class, in their 40s, and usually have left Russia for the first time and therefore don’t speak any English."

A Westin Turnberry Resort spokeswoman said they had hired a Russian receptionist following a flood of bookings.

"We expect even more Russian bookings when the new Moscow-Edinburgh flights are launched," she said.

"They are wealthy visitors who are less interested in golf and more into castles, country homes, whisky and haggis tasting, as Scotland is so different from their country."

The numbers of Russian visitors, who spent 159 million in the UK in 2003, were up by 19 per cent on the previous year.

Annabel Kohler, VisitScotland’s Eastern Europe marketing manager, said that Russians were big spenders.

"The Russians are coming to Scotland to experience our different traditions. They love their literature and authors such as Robert Burns.

"Our marketing strategies seem to be paying off, as we have seen a real surge of Russian visitors to Scotland recently."

A spokeswoman for the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh said: "The Russian market, though still relatively small compared to our US and German markets, is one of our fastest-growing emerging countries - the volume of business from Russia has increased by nearly 200 per cent within the last year.

"We have built up good relations in Russia through Rocco Forte Hotels’ sales office in Moscow and our sister property, the Astoria, which is based in St Petersburg.

"The Balmoral is a good fit for high-end luxury travellers from Russia and, in fact, we hosted a high-level group of Russian travel agents this week, in a bid to strengthen this business."

Simon Williams, Edinburgh Principal Hotels Association’s chief executive, said: "Marketing initiatives and sales trips to Russia in the last few years are now paying dividends, and with the new flights, hotels can expect to welcome a growing market.

"Higher customer spends will also help upper-rated hotels to regain some of the lost yield where the US market has not quite recovered to usual patterns."