Moscow didn’t make a great first impression on experienced Chinese tourist Maggie Xu and the two friends she was travelling with. There was confusion at the airport terminal, difficulty finding their driver, and then crippling traffic jams en route to their hotel, the city’s Ritz-Carlton.
Once they had settled in, though, the trio found themselves charmed by the sparkling lights lining the pavements of Tverskaya Street – Moscow’s Champs-Elysees. “On that cold winter night, the city had the joyful atmosphere of an amusement park,” Xu says.
Xu, model Yuki Dong and education agency owner Jenny Lu had decided to travel to Russia this winter to celebrate Xu’s birthday. They are among a growing number of affluent, big-spending Chinese travellers looking for an alternative to the well-trodden paths of Paris, New York, London and Milan, instead heading to cities with less glamorous reputations such as Moscow and St Petersburg.
Both of these Russian destinations have acquired a glossy new allure, due at least in part to the “China Friendly” project launched by the government and industry in 2014. The project aims to accommodate more Chinese tourists through improved services, hotels, restaurants, tourist activities and – of course – shopping.
The year following the project’s launch, Chinese tourists spent between US$800 million and US$1 billion in Moscow, according to the city’s tourism authorities. In 2016, about one million Chinese tourists visited Russia, reportedly spending in the region of US$2 billion. At the beginning of this year, the Russian government introduced tax-free shopping for tourists in a number of notable stores, hoping to attract even greater numbers.
“As someone who has travelled to over 45 countries and regions, Russia was a good option on the table. We know that the former Soviet Union, like China, is a socialist country with a long history,” Xu says. “China’s understanding of it might be economically polarised and historically charged – the power of its modern leader can be sensationalised – but we wanted to see the country for what it really is.”
The day after they arrived, Xu and her friends visited popular sites dusted with snow in and around Red Square, then browsed a dazzling array of goods at a street market. After Moscow, they headed to St Petersburg for more sightseeing, and skiing at a nearby resort.
“Red tourism”, with its traditional focus on visiting historical socialist or communist landmarks, has boomed in recent years. But it’s not only the Kremlin, Lenin’s Mausoleum and Red Square on the itinerary. Culture and lifestyle tours, fine food and drink, and shopping – the main pastime of Chinese travellers – have become hugely popular.
Research by the Hurun Report entitled “The Chinese Luxury Traveller 2017” found that wealthy Chinese tourists prefer to get out of their comfort zones, with “around the world travel, polar exploration and outdoor adventures” topping their wish lists.
“Many Chinese millennials are incredibly well-researched, savvy travellers. They are sophisticated and looking for experiences,” says Shanghai-based Chloe Reuter, founder of PR agency Reuter Communications, which has many luxury travel clients looking to tempt wealthy Chinese tourists.
Reuter explains that in her agency’s latest survey of Chinese millennials travelling to the US, a third of them opted for Airbnb over traditional hotels. “We coined an acronym for them: the EASTs, or Experience- and Adventure-Seeking Travellers. They do masses of research before leaving; they know exactly what they want to see and do, which little restaurants and cafes to explore, which markets to shop at.”
It was through Airbnb that Xu booked two cultural city tours: “Explore Moscow Secrets”, which started in front of the Bolshoi Theatre, and “City Rooftops”, which offers participants unparalleled views of the Russian capital. They were well worth the effort, she says.
“Looking at the city from an unconventional tourist perspective, I had more opportunities to learn about the history of the city and the people who live there,” she adds.
For many like Xu and her friends, a Russia trip is also about enjoying the high life: breakfast at the Cafe Pushkin, shopping, skiing at the Igora resort, a birthday dinner at Ruski (a restaurant 354 metres above ground level), watching Don Quixote at the Mariinsky Theatre, and sampling delicious fusion cuisine at the renowned White Rabbit.
The “China Friendly” project has arguably contributed greatly to the increasing number of Chinese tourists flocking to Russia. High-end stores have been hiring Chinese-speaking staff, and a visa-free policy is in place for Chinese tour groups. The depreciation of the rouble against the yuan has also helped attract those who love to shop.
Despite freezing winter temperatures, there is plenty of warmth for affluent tourists at major department stores such as Tsum, on Petrovka Street, and Gum, near Red Square, as Russia ups its retail game.
On a 250-metre-long strip along Red Square, Gum occupies an opulent historical building with twin galleries and a glass ceiling. It is possibly the grandest of Moscow department stores, though is slightly less fashion-forward than the 110-year-old Tsum. Few visitors will miss the irony that Gum, which sells luxury goods from brands such as Louis Vuitton and Piaget, faces Lenin’s Mausoleum.
Tsum has turned to competitive pricing to boost business. Two years ago it began to lower prices, which were traditionally higher than those of European department stores. The initiative has lured more native Russians, but also price-conscious Chinese luxury buyers.
“People don’t want to overpay, especially because there’s also e-commerce now,” says Alla Verber, Tsum’s fashion director. “Being overly expensive in Moscow, it doesn’t’ work.”
Verber was the first to bring brands including Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Fendi to Russia, and is responsible for turning a dowdy, storied, Soviet-era department store into a savvy, luxury operation. Despite the country’s shaky economy in the past three years, she points out that Tsum’s sales have grown steadily.
In Russia, Xu says she and her friends found some good luxury bargains. “[We found] a Balenciaga hoodie and Vetements high heels that are hard to find in China, and on sale … The discounts were great – both Gum and Tsum had ‘50 per cent off’ signs. You can’t even buy one pair of Jimmy Choos in Shanghai for the price of two there.”
Tourism now accounts for 10 per cent of sales at Tsum, with more than 80 per cent of overseas shoppers coming from China. The company’s early adoption of Alipay and UnionPay, both Chinese payment systems, as well as special promotions, displays, gifts and discounts during both the Chinese “Golden Week” holiday in October and Lunar New Year, all contribute to their willingness to spend.
“People today see the prices from all around the world on their phone, they check how much something is in London, Dubai, Milan and Paris,” Verber says. “As for Chinese customers, our China-focused payment options and Chinese-speaking staff all help.”
Verber’s team even track Chinese tastes and their preferred colours and sizes through what they buy each season. “I learned that Chinese women like pink, so I buy more of this colour,” she says. “It works, as Russian women really love pink too.”
The history and modernity of Moscow and St Petersburg are a fascinating blend for affluent Chinese tourists today. Security concerns after a spate of terrorist attacks in western Europe have also turned them away from more traditional destinations. Chinese travellers are also not as turned off by ongoing political strife between the West and Russia that has stemmed the flow of tourists into Russia from the US and Europe.
For others, it is simply a matter of being bored of the same sights and shopping in Paris, London and Milan. While these popular destinations are by no means off the map, Moscow and St Petersburg have more of a fresh, exciting and exotic appeal.
“The move to more ‘interesting’ destinations is simply a natural evolution or progression,” Reuter says. “After seeing the key cities, [Chinese tourists] are moving to more exotic destinations, off the beaten track: Africa, Eastern Europe and Russia. These are all key destinations which offer a great mix of history, culture and, of course, some shopping thrown in for good measure.”
For Xu, it’s about taking a step into the unknown. “We wanted to experience a typical Russian winter and feel minus-30-degree-Celsius temperatures,” she says. “Like most Chinese, I have some knowledge of our neighbour, but there’s still a strangeness, a foreignness that I don’t understand. It’s this sense of mystery and discovery that fascinates me about Russia.”
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A love affair with Russia