Lake Baikal, dubbed "Russia's Jewel," is the world's largest and deepest freshwater lake. The tourism season normally starts in January, when the water crystallizes into aquamarine ice.
Chinese tourists have been the most frequent and prolific at the lake in recent years, accounting for 65 percent of all foreign arrivals in 2019 – but they have been conspicuous by their absence for the past 12 months.
In 1996, Lake Baikal was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The vast lake, surrounded by steppes and mountains, provides 20% of the world's fresh water and is home to a number of endemic plant and animal species. The Evenk and Buryat peoples influenced the area's cultural heritage, which is influenced by shamanic and Buddhist practices.
Tourism has fueled the growth of businesses surrounding the lake. They've evolved in recent years to cater to Chinese tourists in particular. Hotel and restaurant workers in Listvyanka, Baikal's main lakeshore village, are learning Mandarin. At Listvyanka's open-air market, Baikalsky Rynok, stall owners know which local delicacies, such as smoked omul fish and Siberian herbal tea, would appeal to Chinese tourists.
However, those tourists stopped arriving in February when Russia, in an attempt to combat the spread of Covid-19, became one of the first countries to close its borders to Chinese nationals – a move that came as a surprise to some, considering the country's reliance on Chinese tourism. In 2019, Russia received 2.26 million visitors from China, up 21% from the previous year.
After a year, both Russian and Chinese tourism business owners are asking when – or even whether – Chinese tourists will return in large numbers. Some people might even wish for another Li Jian moment.
In 2015, the Chinese singer did a huge favor for the Baikal tourism industry. “How many couples like us have been engulfed in the bright, moonlit night in this life?” says Li of Lake Baikal. On Hunan Television's I Am a Singer show, the song "Thinking about one day – the past reappears – and we stay on the shores of Lake Baikal" inspired viewers to place the lake on their travel wish list.
The majority of his clients, according to Dimitriy Yakovlev, owner of Irkutsk Free Tours, are from southern China. Or rather, they did; in 2020, with "nearly no visitors," he says, "we [earned] less than 5% of our 2019 revenue."
Jack Sheremetoff, the owner of Baikaler Tours and the Belka Hostel in Listvyanka, normally caters to tourists from Asia and Europe, but business has dropped by 97 percent. “I had to say my goodbyes to my three employees; now my wife and I are the only ones who work there.”
Lake Baikal and eastern Russia were attractive destinations for Chinese tour groups prior to the pandemic, in part due to Moscow's accommodating visa arrangements for such visitors. Practical factors, such as eastern Russia's proximity to China and relatively low costs due to the rouble's consistent weakness, also played a role.
Golden Bridge International Travel, based in Manzhouli, Inner Mongolia, specialized in Baikal tours and only sold outbound itineraries to Russia and Mongolia. Operations have now been suspended, and manager Wang Kaifeng admits that "the business has clearly been impacted." He is looking forward to the reopening of the border and the resumption of lake tours, he says.
Lake Baikal tours, which typically last about nine days, were "extremely common," according to Wu Yufeng, customer manager for Guangzhou travel agency COZL. COZL lost between 85 and 95 percent of its business in 2020, according to him, compared to 2019.
Irkutsk Free Tours has changed its focus. Domestic tourists continue to flock to Lake Baikal, according to Yakovlev. “There has been a lot of business from Russians even now [during the pandemic].”
“Businesses on Baikal will survive,” says Yakovlev, “but there will be no significant development without Chinese visitors.”
The exact date is uncertain, but Wang is hopeful that the Chinese will re-appreciate Baikal in the future. He describes Lake Baikal as a "very special destination for mainland Chinese." “They'll be back,” says the narrator.
Furthermore, a shift is taking place in eastern Russia that could result in even more concern.
According to Wolfgang Arlt, CEO and founder of the China Outbound Tourism Research Institute, “how most Chinese want to travel post-pandemic has changed – with more curiosity in nature, wellness, smaller destinations, and authentic communication with local culture” (Cotri).
Such experiences are available in Russia's east and on Lake Baikal, and at significantly lower prices than in other destinations.
“There are fewer visitors, wild and unimaginable scenery – it feels like a well-kept secret,” says Frances Guo Yu-Yun, a Jiangsu resident who recalls a 2017 trip to Kamchatka, which is renowned for its plentiful wildlife, moonlike landscapes, and snow-capped volcanoes.
Connie Kuang Jia-yin, a Guangzhou resident, was drawn to Baikal's natural beauty and boarded the Trans-Siberian Railway's K3 train. “Russia appeared to me to be a magnificent and mysterious country. I met several other solo travelers who became friends – and encountered the local Buryatian culture – when I traveled to Olkhon Island [Baikal's largest] on my own.”
When the Chinese return to Russia, Cotri predicts that they will do so in far greater numbers than in 2019.
“It depends on the Russian vaccine scheme and the pandemic situation,” says Alisa Xia, customer officer for Beijing-based Sparkle Tours, who believes cross-border travel will resume by the end of the year or early in 2022. China had given out more than 110 million vaccine doses as of April 1, while Russia had vaccinated about 11 million of its people.
Kuang, who now lives in Hong Kong but hopes to return to Russia for a vacation soon, says: “I'm not in a hurry to return if the health and hygiene conditions are still unhealthy.