Home > > China-Russia tourism: a moderate recovery fueled by flight and visa resumption

China-Russia tourism: a moderate recovery fueled by flight and visa resumption

07/27/2023| 12:02:16 PM|

In the first half of this year, flights between the two countries increased by 435.4% year on year to more than 1,900, still only up to 21.7% of the 2019 level.

Russia was among the 20 nations that Chinese travel agencies are allowed to resume outbound group travel for Chinese citizens in a pilot program initiated by China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and effective on February 6. 

On February 23, the first Chinese tourist group to visit Russia in three years, led by Guangzhou-based GZL International Travel Service, arrived at Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow, marking the reactivation of cross-border travel between the two neighboring countries.

China ranked second in visitor arrivals to Russia in Q1

As summer travel heats up this year, Russia is again among the top 10 destinations for Chinese outbound travelers to Europe, with Moscow and St. Petersburg among the most searched Russian cities. 

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) border crossing data cited by the RBC news websites showed an uptick in inbound travel including from Europe and China so far this year. Russia’s visitor arrival figure increased 17% in January-March 2023 year on year, up from 2.78 million to 3.27 million, though it was still 48.9% lower compared with the first quarter in 2019. Among them, 67,700 were tourists, a 17.3% YOY increase, though equivalent to only 15% of the 2019 level. 

China is the second largest visitor market for Russia. In the first quarter, arrivals from China increased by 460% compared with the first quarter of 2022, though the 84,200 visits were still below the pre-pandemic figures of 113,800 in January-March 2020. Of those, 6,200 were tourists, a 60-fold increase from just over 100 tourists in the same period of last year. From January to March 2019, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Russia reached 342,000.

China was also one of the largest visitor source markets for Russia before the outbreak of the pandemic. FSB data showed that 1.4 million of the total five million tourists received in 2019 were from China, 1.2 of those entered Russia under the framework of the Russia-China mutual visa-free group travel agreement.

Additionally, Chinese tourists were among the biggest spenders for Russia. In 2019, Chinese citizens including tourists spent some USD 1 billion, according to the Central Bank of Russia.

Travel agencies serving Chinese tourists in Moscow and St. Petersburg were generating annual revenues of up to 30 billion rubles (USD 331.5 million) before the COVID-19 pandemic.

China’s Spring Tour reported that tour packages such as 9-day-7-night round trips, or 13-day immersive trips with four flights are the most popular products booked by Chinese tourists. On average, Chinese tourists stayed in Russia for about eight days and spent about RMB 3,000 (USD 418) per person in the past few months, almost back to 2019 levels. Spending on accommodation and transportation accounted for about 70%-80% of the total travel expenses. 

China-Russia flights back to over 20% of the 2019 level in H1

The surge of international flights between China and Russia since February this year was another sign that cross-border travel between China and Russia was gaining momentum. In the first half of this year, flights between the two countries increased by 435.4% from the same period of last year to more than 1,900, although that’s just 21.7% of the 2019 level, according to Flight Master, an aviation data platform in China.

During the pandemic, the number of China-Russia flights bottomed out in March 2022, at just 11% of the 2021 level. It remained low until November 2022. 

The turning point came in January this year, following China’s announcement of uplifting quarantine requirements for international arrivals from January 8. The number of flights began climbing, and a 30-fold YOY increase was recorded by June, with more than 630 flights, the highest in three years and back to about 30% of the 2019 level.

According to the Ministry of Transport of the Russian Federation, in the first five months of 2023, Russian airlines transported 78,800 passengers between Russia and China, more than 10 times of the 7,500 passengers transported during the same period in 2022.

Currently, Russian airlines operate 13 routes to China, with 32 flights per week in total flying to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Harbin and Urumqi. Meanwhile, Chinese airlines operate 10 routes with 45 flights per week connecting Chinese cities with Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Tourist visas issued to Chinese increased by over 12 times in the past year

Visa-free agreement and visa issuance have also increased following the February resumption of the visa-free agreement for group tours between Russia and China, launched in February 2000 but suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2021. The agreement allows visa-free stay in Russia of up to 15 days for Chinese tourist groups of 5 to 50 people organized by selected agencies.

News agency TASS reported that the Russian Ministry of Economic Development announced in late June that the list of Chinese travel agencies eligible for visa-free group tours would be submitted to Russia within two weeks, and visa-free group tours between the two countries would resume this summer. On July 21, the Russian Consul-General in Harbin stated that China and Russia are working on the final procedures.

Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry announced on July 20 that citizens of 52 countries, including China, will be able to get an electronic visa beginning August 1. The electronic visa will be issued to individuals for the purpose of tourism or taking part in activities and events. It is valid for 60 days and permits a single entry with a maximum stay of 16 days.

In the first quarter of 2023, Russia issued over 52,000 visas to Chinese citizens, said Aleksey Klimov, the head of the Consular Department of the Russian Ministry for Foreign Affairs. He stated that the number of tourist visas issued to Chinese citizens increased by more than 12 times in the past year, while business visas quadrupled, and study visas doubled.

At the same time, Russian citizens’ applications for visas to China have increased sharply since China fully resumed the issuance of visas on March 15, 2023. Visa application appointment slots were fully booked by Russian citizens within two days, according to local media Kommersant citing managers from visa and travel agencies in Russia. It would take up to two months to apply for a Chinese visa in Moscow, and at least one month in St. Petersburg. 

Since the resumption of visa issuance, the share of flight bookings to China accounted for 2% of the total in the following week, compared to only 0.1% before March 15, according to data from the travel platform OneTwoTrip. China ranked 12th among top destinations for Russian travelers, a leap from the previous ranking of 50th. Beijing attracted the most Russian visitors with a share of 28%, followed by Shanghai (23%) and Guangzhou (18%). Hotel searches for China increased by five-fold in the first two weeks of March, data from booking platform Ostrovok.ru showed.

Experts predict that the number of hotel bookings by Russians in major Chinese cities will double, and the number of Russian tourists to China in 2023 is expected to recover to 30% to 40% of the pre-pandemic level. 

On the other hand, Alexander Livov, a committee member of the Russian travel association “World without borders”, expected that the number of Chinese tourists traveling to Russia would return to pre-pandemic levels within approximately three years.

TAGS: China-Russia tourism | outbound travel | tourist visa
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