Moscow, May 3 (IANS) Historically, Russia has never taken kindly to invasions, with the French under Napoleon and Hitler's Germany suffering crippling defeats in the great wars - but it's an entirely different matter when it comes to the Chinese.
Over the last few years, President Vladimir Putin's Russia has been reacting pleasantly every summer to a new wave of invaders armed with iPhones, selfie-sticks and floppy caps - Chinese tourists, a million of whom visited Russia in 2015 alone spending a whopping $1 billion in the process, according to official estimates.
Despite the falling rouble and a dip in the arrival of European and American tourists following the prolonged conflict with neighbouring Ukraine, Russia has been laughing all the way to the bank, on the back of Chinese tourists who are landing in Russia with an appetite for both the Russian cold and culture.
Valery Korovkin, head of the International Development division of the Federal Agency for Tourism, was asked how Russia had been able to attract droves of Chinese tourists to cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg.
He believes that there is simply no stopping them. "Absolute figures are astonishing, anywhere, everywhere. They put on the international market 120 million tourists last year. They are exporting tourists like hell," Korovkin told this visiting IANS correspondent.
"The Chinese world is an absolutely different world from us. But the Chinese are going everywhere. This is not just Russia's case; it is the case all over the world. You cannot stop them or you have to build an Iron Curtain once again," he quipped.
But it took more than just humour for Russia to gain the confidence of Chinese travellers.
There are two key reasons why Chinese tourists have edged out those from Germany and the UK from the list of top visitors: a relaxed visa regime and the growing success of the China Friendly International Project by Russia's tourism industry stakeholders last year that was engineered to create and facilitate initiatives for healthy and comfortable hospitality for tourists from China.
For example, an electric kettle is now a constant feature in the rooms of most hotels which host chartered tourists from China, because of the Chinese obsession for hot water and brewing tea. The programme also mandates that restaurant menus and signages in hotels should be in Russian and Chinese, that Cantonese-speaking staffers liaise with Chinese tourists and Chinese channels be aired on cable television, among other things.
"There is even a special award for the hotel that takes the best care of Chinese tourists under the programme," Pavel Kretov of Academservice, a leading Moscow-based inbound tour operator, told IANS.
Once the programme was accepted by tourism and hospitality establishments in popular hubs like Moscow and St. Petersburg and the visa regime relaxed - currently a group of more than five Chinese tourists can visit Russia without visas - the Chinese arrivals started booming.
Interestingly, One of the most popular tourism circuits with Chinese tourists are historical sites of Communist significance, which is being promoted as 'Red' tourism in communist China.
"This year we have forecast that Chinese arrivals will increase by 30 percent. On an average there are 10 flights per week from Chinese cities to St. Petersburg and 40 flights per week to Moscow," Rimma Sachunova, deputy chairperson of the St. Petersburg Committee on Tourism Development, told IANS.
Unofficial estimates suggest that an average tourist from China spends about 15,000 yuan (approximately $2,400) during his or her Russia sojourn.
There are some who bicker that catering to Chinese tourists can be tricky for those in the hospitality industry, because of socio-cultural habits, especially when it comes to issues like cleaning up after they check out of hotel rooms, but there are other more obvious traits which tilt the scales in their favour.
"European tourists always ask for discounts, but the Chinese never do. Whatever price is asked for, they pay. They are not demanding," Kretov noted.
(Mayabhushan Nagvenkar's visit was at the invitation of the Russian Information Centre. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)