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Dressed in traditional Russian costume, a Chinese tourist dances with a Russian girl on a boat in Vladivostok. Cheng Gang / For China Daily
An enthusiast for modern military equipment and weapons, Yang Zhongyi first found himself impressed by Russia when, as a child, he would read military magazines showing pictures of naval ships and aircraft used by the former Soviet Union.
Last April, the 28-year-old Shenzhen resident visited Russia for the first time.
"The huge palaces and plazas in Moscow and St. Petersburg reminded me of the glory of the mighty Russian empire in times past," he said.
On that trip, he didn't have enough time to go to military museums in Moscow, a missed opportunity he plans to make up for this fall when he returns to the country to see military exhibitions and other sights.
Yang is among the many Chinese tourists who are expected to visit Russia this year. To encourage travel and investment between the two countries, China and Russia plan to observe the "Year of Russian Tourism" in China in 2012 and the "Year of Chinese Tourism" in Russia in 2013.
This year, more than 200 events will encourage Chinese tourists to make trips to their neighbor to the north.
One goal of the initiative is to bring the number of tourists going between the countries to 5 million by 2015, Vice-Premier Wang Qishan said last month in Beijing when he met his Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov.
Statistics show that nearly 3.5 million tourists traveled between China and Russia in 2011. Last year, more than 800,000 Chinese tourists made Russia the first stop on an overseas trip, up 13.9 percent year-on-year. In a ranking of where most tourists to Russia come from, China came in second.
Meanwhile, more than 2.5 million Russian tourists went to China in 2011, meaning the third-largest number of tourists to China that year came from Russia.
Zhang Wei, general manager of the outbound travel department of China International Travel Service, said Russia has a special attraction for Chinese people, especially for middle-aged and older tourists.
"The country (Russia) had a great influence in their lives, and they grew up at a time when China and the former Soviet Union were in a friendly alliance," she said.
Meng Liangqing, a manager in charge of the Russia travel business at the Beijing-based tour company China Comfort Travel, said it has become easier for the Chinese to obtain entry permits to Russia and travel has become more popular as a result.
Since 2006, Chinese tourists have been able to visit Russia as part of group tours without applying for visas. And both China and Russia are discussing the possibility of adopting laxer visa polices for tourists from both countries.
"The visa-free policy made Russia a place that is, compared with other European countries, easier for Chinese tourists to go to," Meng said.
He said Russia welcomes many young and old Chinese tourists every year.
Travel agencies are worried, though, that Russia may not be able to accommodate all of the Chinese tourists who want to go there. Meng said his company, to ensure employees have a place to stay in Moscow when they travel to that city, must book hotel rooms half a year in advance of such trips.
"Air tickets are hard to get since there are relatively few flights," Zhang Wei said. "The situation might be more stringent this year because of an increasing number of business travelers."
Larisa Smirnova, a Russian teacher at Xiamen University, was chosen by the local government to be an ambassador to promote Fujian's Tulou (earthen buildings), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. She said tourism offers an opportunity to strengthen the friendship that exists between China and Russia.
"Russians are very interested in China's historical sites and natural scenery, such as seaside resorts," she said. "And Chinese traditional medicines and martial arts are also very attractive to Russian tourists.
"Communication can improve cross-cultural exchanges and bring more understanding."
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Yang Lina in Xiamen contributed to this story.