Inbound tourism numbers are on the rise, thanks in part to a growing number of overseas Chinese language students making visits to the country. Yang Feiyue reports.
Alina Salionova joined a six-day trip jointly hosted by Chinese online travel giant Ctrip and a subsidiary of the Confucius Institute to visit some of China's top tourist attractions ahead of the busy National Day holiday week.
The Russian woman and two friends joined a group of more than 60 tourists from dozens of countries to visit the Great Wall and the Palace Museum in Beijing, the ancient walled city of Pingyao in Shanxi province, and the Terracotta Warriors in Shaanxi province.
"I've always wanted to see the Terracotta Warriors. This trip is a dream come true for me," Salionova says.
Salionova began to study Chinese at the Confucius Institute in her home country five years ago to develop her interest in the Chinese language and its culture.
"China has many famous places and a long history, and people are kind and quick to help when you're in need," Salionova adds.
She first visited Beijing to watch the 2008 Olympic Games and since then has visited Harbin in Northeast China's Heilongjiang province and Shanghai and Hangzhou in the east for summer vacations.
Salionova is just one of the growing number of inbound travelers to China.
China received 69.5 million inbound visits in the first six months of the year, compared to 62.3 million outbound visits, according to a National Tourism Administration report.
In 2016, the number of inbound visitors reached 138 million, a historical high since the international financial crisis of 2008 and an increase of 3.5 percent over the previous year.
Income from international tourism grew 5.6 percent to $120 billion in the same period.
This figure suggests the country's inbound tourism market has stepped out of its post-financial crisis depression and entered a new phase of sustainable growth, according to the administration.
"The number of foreign travel groups visiting China has increased in recent years," says Zhou Ying, a veteran tour guide in Beijing.
Zhou has been guiding tour groups from the United States, Australia and New Zealand around the capital for years, taking on more than 40 groups of around 30 people every year.
"They love visiting the landmarks and mixing with the locals," he says.
The departure tax refund scheme policy, facilitated visa policy, increasing number of international flights and tourism events have played a positive role in reviving China's inbound tourism market, according to a September report from the China Tourism Academy.
People from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan make up the mainstay of visitors, while South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Myanmar, the US, Russia, Mongolia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore are the top 10 sources of foreign travelers to China.
More than 60 percent of inbound travelers spend between $1,000 to 5,000 during their trips to China on average, and the number of visitors from the countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative are actively rising, according to the report.
Trips to visit scenic spots, cultural relics and gourmet restaurants are among the most popular.
"The trip was quickly booked up once we released the information online," says Zhu Lei, general manager of Ctrip's international strategic cooperation department.
The tour took in many landmark scenic spots and was designed to introduce visitors to China's wealth of tourism sights and immerse them in Chinese tradition and customs.
Ctrip and a Confucius Institute subsidiary called the Chinese Testing International Company plan to jointly develop more Sinology-related trips and arrange for overseas people who study the Chinese language to travel in China.
"It's an important part of Ctrip's systematic inbound tourism market arrangement, and we hope bilateral cooperation will attract more visitors," Zhu says.
To date, the Confucius Institute subsidiary has served 6 million Chinese language test participants and 100 million Chinese language learners, while Ctrip has 25 million foreign users.
"This is our first program with Ctrip, and we have more than 1,000 test centers overseas. We may use these facilities to cooperate with many companies," says Zhang Yuan, vice-general manager at the Chinese Testing International Company.
The company hosted an introduction to China tourism event in the United Kingdom in September and nearly 100 participants attended and expressed an interest in exploring the country, Zhang says.
"We hope similar events will be held in more countries in future to invite more people in."
Most of the foreign students we have spoken to have shown a great deal of interest in traveling to China and using the opportunity of studying or working to see the country, Zhang explains.
The number of foreign students taking the HSK-Chinese proficiency test run by Zhang's company has continued to rise over the years. Last year, the test received 580,000 takers.
The number of test takers from Europe has grown by more than 20 percent over the past two years.
"It has helped to draw many European students to study and travel in China," Zhang says.
Salionova is in her first year at Dongbei University of Finance and Economics in Dalian, Liaoning province, studying international trade.
"I'll spend my first year traveling to improve my Chinese. I've made lots of friends living in all four corners of the country, and they will let me stay with them," Salionova says.
Salionova plans to move to Shanghai after her graduation and hopes to get a job that will help improve Russia-China relations.
Top 10 sources of foreign travelers to China