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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chinese Tour Groups Get Visa-Free Travel

Russia began offering Chinese tour groups visa-free travel on Thursday as it sought to attract more visitors from China, the first country outside the former Soviet Union to be granted the waiver.

Chinese groups of five or more people traveling through a Russian-registered tour operator are being allowed to visit any city that is open to foreigners, said Sergei Sinitsyn, a spokesman for the Federal Tourism Agency.

The decision is in response to steps by China to encourage its 1.3 billion people to vacation in Russia, Sinitsyn said by telephone. China added Russia to its list of "favorable" travel destinations in 2003 and this year began allowing advertisements for Russian vacations.

"They have probably made the changes because of the warming relations between our countries,'' Sinitsyn said.

Chinese Embassy officials were not available for immediate comment Thursday.

Relations between the two nuclear powers, which share one of the world's longest borders, have improved in recent years as they try to counter the United States' role as the world's sole superpower. The two countries concluded their first joint military exercise Thursday.

Chinese citizens living near the Russian border have been able to enter neighboring regions for work or trade since 2000, accounting for most of the 800,000 Chinese who officially visited the country last year, Sinitsyn said. By dropping the visa requirement, Russia hopes to attract 1 million Chinese travelers next year, excluding workers and traders, Sinitsyn said. The country received about 5 million tourists from outside the former Soviet Union last year.

Older Chinese who grew up at the time the communists took over the country in 1949 with Soviet help may be the most interested in Russia as a tourist destination, said travel agents in China.

"Chinese people around 50, 60 years old may be very interested in visiting Russia because they have a fond feeling toward the country, which helped China in the old days,'' said Zhao Min of Dongguan International Travel Services Co. in Guangdong.

Russia was the fourth-most popular destination for Chinese tourists last year, after Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.