RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Elsewhere in this program, we heard about the Russian economy tanking and how that's got some of its high-rolling oligarchs worried. Also hurting - the Alpine ski resort where better-off Russians once flocked. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sent this report from the mountains near Mont Blanc.
ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Russians have been coming in large numbers to ski the fabled Alpine slopes around Mont Blanc for the past decade. But the drop in the ruble is now keeping them away, and that's impacting the wintertime economy in this region.
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BEARDSLEY: In the cozy and chic village of Megeve, horse-drawn carriages jingle through the snowy streets. People gather around a steaming cauldron of mulled wine in the town's central plaza. And the boutiques are lit up and full of shoppers. Megeve's mayor, Catherine Jullien, looks over the scene from her upstairs office in the town hall. Jullien says Russians make up just 10 percent of Megeve's winter tourists, but they play a key role.
MAYOR CATHERINE JULLIEN: (Through interpreter) They're an extremely important clientele because they come right on the tail of Christmas and the New Year because of their later Orthodox celebrations. They spend big and allow the resort to prolong the holiday season well into the month of January.
BEARDSLEY: Jullien says the plunging ruble has hit middle-class Russian families especially hard, and many haven't returned this year. Frederic Vepierre is the manager of Le Fer a Cheval, one of Megeve's most exclusive five-star hotels.
FREDERIC VEPIERRE: (Through interpreter) We began to worry way last spring when we saw what was going on in Ukraine and the standoff between Russia and the West. And then we heard all kinds of rumors, like President Vladimir Putin wasn't going to let people leave with their money. We are all worried.
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BEARDSLEY: Towns and resorts all through the Alps are being affected by the ruble's collapse, which has cast a pall over Russian tourism across Europe. The French resort of Courchevel is perhaps the biggest mecca for Russian skiers in the region. Tourism bureau director Adeline Roux says they won't know the real impact until the season is over, but the signs are not good.
ADELINE ROUX: At the moment, we have some availabilities in the most luxury chalets - what's never happened before. And in March, usually we have again Russians. And I think this year, they will not come.
BEARDSLEY: For now, you can still hear Russian on the slopes and drifting through the crisp Alpine air. Muscovite Natalia Resiska is having a smoke before taking the ski lift. She says her group was lucky. They booked and paid for their trip six months ago. Resiska says Russians love skiing in the Alps.
NATALIA RESISKA: First, it's not so far from Russia. And second, it's very comfortable here - good slopes, good food, you know, very nice - nice atmosphere so - and so on.
BEARDSLEY: I asked them if they felt any hostility over the Ukraine conflict and the standoff between the West and Russia.
LILIYANA ASYANAVA: (Speaking Russian).
BEARDSLEY: "No," says Liliyana Asyanava. "It's all just a political game."
SERGEI GOUCHEV: (Speaking Russian).
BEARDSLEY: Sergei Gouchev says Putin and Obama should just sit down and talk and drink some vodka together.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Vodka, no. Champagne, champagne.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: No, Champagne.
BEARDSLEY: But there'll be no vodka for this group. They plan to enjoy their apres-ski the French way, with oysters and champagne. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, the French Alps.
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