Irina Antonova: Russian and Chinese tourists have much in common

Natalia Klimenok (Russian Travel Digest) and Irina Antonova (General Manager of Russian Tour) discussed the trade tendencies during ITB China 2024, Shanghai

Irina, tell our readers about the Russian Tour, its main directions and strengths

Our company is part of the VR Group, which has been working with China for more than 20 years. The holding itself is engaged in international logistics and trade. Tourism as a part of the business appeared in the VR Group in 2017. Initially, we were only engaged in inbound from China, but before the pandemic we managed to gain a foothold in the UAE, India, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Now, due to the pandemic and special military operation, guests from Thailand and China are coming to Russia, but most of all for business. And here the advantage of our company is that we are part of a large commercial holding company. For example, it includes the Russian-Chinese Guild of Commerce, due to which we can organize business meetings. The tour packages most often include not only accommodation, meals, excursions, but also meetings with Russian business: with state-owned enterprises or private companies.

How did you survive the pandemic and special military operation?

During the pandemic, most of the employees with English and Chinese languages were reoriented to trade projects. When the special military operation began, our employees began searching for “under sanctioned” goods in China and Vietnam. Vietnam is very friendly to us: some sectional goods are easier to bring from Vietnam than from China. Accordingly, our employees who worked with Vietnam carried the goods from there. That’s how we managed to survive. Besides the trade, we also supported tourism. For example, in 2022 we started an online education project. We have signed a number of agreements with Moscow and Far Eastern universities for the teaching of bachelor’s, master’s, specialty and retraining programs for Chinese students.

What was your function in these educational programs?

First of all, we provided the platform for classes and supported it. On our side, there were tutors with Chinese and Russian languages. We also attracted Chinese applicants to Russian universities and issued documents for them. Even in online training, there is some bureaucracy, for example, signing a contract, making a payment. We have our own legal entity in Hong Kong and mainland China, respectively, Chinese students paid us in China, and we, as a third party, paid the university. But the most important thing is our bilingual tutors.

So Chinese students can complete a bachelor’s degree program in Russia online?

This was possible during the pandemic. In 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Education issued a ban on online education. So the diploma is no longer quoted.

What do you think is the reason for this?

According to the Ministry the quality of on-line education is low. More over Russian and European teachers can hardly distinguish one Chinese student from another, which brings to misunderstandings or cheatings. But we are continuing with this non-tourism project. There is no special department for it yet, but there is a website – RTSTUDY in Chinese.

What is the portrait of a Russian tourist in China 10 years ago, and what kind of tourist is this now

Previously, it was a group inexpensive tourist, because China was not a country of comfortable holidays. Yes, the country is safe, but not comfortable. At that time, tourists were mainly traveling from Khabarovsk, the Far East, and Yakutsk, since flying from these regions of Russia to China is much closer and cheaper. But now the tourist has completely changed. There are individual tourists who choose China for sightseeing and beach holidays. Now we often do Beijing-Shanghai-Xi’an tours and plus 5-7 days in Sanya. There are coves with top hotels: Ritz Carlton, Hyatt, Hilton, Marriott. This is an island of complete safety for a relaxing family holiday. The service is at a good European level. I don’t even want to say, “at the European level.” Now the Asian service in even higher. The staff speaks excellent English with courtesy, but lack of obsession. Nobody tries to sell any additional services, massages, excursions.

And what is the Chinese tourist coming to Russia now?

Russian and Chinese tourists have much in common. Before the pandemic, the Chinese traveled mostly in groups. Probably, everyone saw a tour leader with a flag, followed by 30 – 40 elderly guests. These were people of the older generation who remember Stalin. The came to the Red Square to bow to Lenin (laughs).

For Chinese youth, has not been interesting. Young Chinese thought that Russia was boring, poor. Now many Chinese who come to Russia are surprised by cleanliness, branded hotels, good transportation, abundance in supermarkets. Yes, young people will attend the mandatory program: the Amber Room in St. Petersburg, the Tretyakov Gallery and the Kremlin in Moscow, but they generally follow another one. For example, they are interested in military tours: shooting in a shooting range, trench, skydiving. Tourists want to try new and unusual things. To our surprise, there is a demand for gastronomic tours. These tourists used to travel with their own food before.

In addition, Chinese tourists request a local Russian tour guide. Tourists are willing to pay for the work of a qualified person, not an illegal student.

You are one of the few Russian companies with your stand at ITB China 2024

We usually participate in all Asian exhibitions. But, to be honest, we did not expect such a rush at ITB China 2024. We thank the organizers that despite our name Russian Tour we were accepted as exhibitors. Although we were refused to participate with a stand in exhibitions in Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong.

After February 2022 any Russian supplier experiences difficulties. Do you feel any support of the state?

We really appreciate the activity of the Moscow Tourism Committee, which is very active in organizing B2B meetings for Russian suppliers in Arab and Asian countries. This year we have already visited China, Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In addition, Mostourism brings foreign companies interested in tourism to the Russian capital. This gives us the opportunity to communicate and get through a difficult period.

Photo by ITB China