Traditional Vienna Goes Brand Crazy in Luxury Facelift
Half a dozen new five-star hotels, flagship stores for Louis Vuitton, Prada and Emporio Armani: Vienna is undergoing a luxury facelift that is delighting Arab, Asian and Russian tourists, as well as locals.
Always the epitome of elegance and culture, the Austrian capital was long set on tradition.
Grand hotels like the famous Sacher, Bristol and Imperial dated back to the Austro-Hungarian empire and on the limited luxury shopping mile -- the Kohlmarkt -- internationally recognizable brand names jostled for space with local businesses.
But walk through the city center now and sleek window displays boast the latest Miu Miu handbag or Vivienne Westwood fashion.
A new bloc called the Golden Quarter houses a three-storey Vuitton shop as well as Roberto Cavalli and Mulberry, and will soon welcome the first Yves Saint Laurent store in Austria.
Three five-star hotels -- including a Ritz Carlton and a Kempinski -- have also opened their doors in the last nine months. A Four Seasons, a Park Hyatt and a third top-ranked hotel are to follow by next year.
"There is hardly a brand that isn't present in Vienna... there is no reason to go anywhere else anymore for high-end shopping," Helmut Schramm, head of the Vienna Economic Chamber's fashion division, told Agence France Presse.
The growing number of high-spending tourists from Russia, Asia and the Gulf -- including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar -- certainly contributed to this trend.
"For them, it's very much about prestige, about brands. So we're working in that direction," said Vienna Tourist Board director Norbert Kettner.
Those most often seen toting large Chanel or Gucci shopping bags around the city center are indeed Asian couples or Arab families.
Chinese tourists are the second biggest spenders in the Austrian capital, dropping an average 623 euros ($833) per day, just behind the Thai visitors, according to Tourist Board figures.
But locals are also rejoicing in the opportunity to buy the latest designs from Milan or Paris right here at home.
"Salespeople in the shops say they have the feeling Austrians were only waiting for the chance to buy colorful fashion," Daniela Steurer from Signa Holding, the group behind the Golden Quarter luxury bloc, told AFP.
With some 77,600 millionaires, according to Liechtenstein-based investment firm Valluga, Austria has plenty of wealthy locals able to splurge.
-- "Still room for growth" --
The timing of this luxury drive may seem odd, so soon after the financial crisis and amid continuing austerity.
But "the super-rich are totally unfazed by the global crisis," Kettner told AFP.
If anything, the surprising thing is that a luxury boom did not occur sooner in a city decked out with grand palaces and elegant cafes, where waltzing at a ball is still a popular pastime.
"Vienna was always a bit of a Sleeping Beauty," said Paul Dutschmann, marketing chief at the recently opened Palais Hansen Kempinski, which boasts the city's most expensive suite at 15,000 euros per night.
"Vienna really only started growing in the last 10-20 years," thanks in part to the opening up of the former Soviet bloc and a boom in Asian travel.
Even with the latest offerings, the Austrian capital pales in comparison with other European cities, with just 19 five-star hotels. Prague, a smaller city, has 42 and Barcelona 24, noted Kettner.
"For a city of this size... there is still room (for growth)," he said.
With new five-star hotels offering iPads in every room, personal trainers and even the use of a rented Jaguar, classic establishments like the Hotel Sacher have also launched massive refurbishments to keep up.
Rather than crowding the market, the arrival of so many big names "is revitalizing the sector: there's something for everyone," said Dutschmann.
Last year, Vienna had twice as many five-star hotel guests as in 2002.
After Germans and Italians, Russians were the third-largest group of foreign tourists.
Overnight stays meanwhile jumped by 63 percent from 2011 for guests from Saudi Arabia, 40 percent for China and 39 percent for Brazil, the next big market.
"People won't come here for luxury alone. But it's a plus, to satisfy a class of people who would come to Vienna anyway but not necessarily for shopping," said Steurer.
Frequent international conferences here also attract generous visitors -- they spend almost twice as much as the average tourist -- according to the Vienna Tourist Board.
For the Vienna Economic Chamber's Helmut Schramm, the booming luxury sector is a priceless asset to the city.
"It is still just a small percentage, but it greatly enhances Vienna's status."