China Tourism Growth Lifts Fortunes of Sheremetyevo Airport

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport has set an ambitious target to double traffic to 100 million passengers a year. The airport has a new runway operational, coupled with a gleaming new international terminal opening this month, The Financial Times reported.

Nearly half of the expected tourists are set to come from routes that were until only recently an afterthought: connecting flights between Europe and Asia, boosted by breakneck growth in tourism from China. 

The weak rouble, currently trading at 62 to the dollar, less than half its value five years ago, has made Russia one of the top three destinations worldwide for Chinese tourists, Russian officials say. State agency Rosturizm estimated more than 2m Chinese tourists visited Russia last year, compared with just 158,000 a decade ago. 

“The rouble devaluation after 2014, Moscow’s efforts to simplify the process for Chinese tour groups to get visas together and active marketing by Russian tourism firms have contributed to the trend,” said Alexander Gabuev, chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific program at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“Russia has also allowed more flights from regional Chinese air companies to Moscow, which helps to turn the Russian capital into an air hub for Europe-bound Chinese tourism,” Gabuev noted.

Despite outcries from Russia’s culture ministry that Chinese tourists were swamping popular St Petersburg tourist sites, their big-spending makes them an attractive proposition. The average Chinese tourist spends $700 on a trip to Russia, according to the central bank, while total spending for 2019 is expected to top $1bn. As many as 70 percent of tax-free receipts handed out at Russia’s airports go to Chinese citizens. 

Sheremetyevo, Moscow’s largest airport, is looking to capitalize on that growth. Signs and announcements are in Mandarin throughout, while duty-free stores accept popular Chinese payment methods, including UnionPay cards and online systems WeChat Pay and Alipay. 

More than 2.3 million Chinese tourists flew into Sheremetyevo in 2019, including 1.26m who transferred via the airport. Sheremetyevo, which offers flights to 29 Chinese cities served by eight Chinese airlines, expects their number to grow by 30 percent a year in the years to come.

“We think that we’re only just getting started growing Chinese passenger flows,” Alexander Ponomarenko, Sheremetyevo chairman, told the FT in an interview.

Ponomarenko and his business partner Alexander Skorobogatko own a 65 percent stake in Sheremetyevo’s holding company, which owns about two-thirds of the airport.

Since taking over Sheremetyevo, Ponomarenko has overseen a $2.5bn infrastructure upgrade that includes two new passenger terminals, a cargo terminal and a train under the runway linking them to the existing terminals. 

In addition to Chinese tourism, Ponomarenko sees transfer traffic between Europe and China as key to growing Sheremetyevo’s passenger flows, FT adds.

Russian national carrier Aeroflot, which is based in Sheremetyevo, controls 7.8 percent of transfer traffic between Europe and China — second only to Air China, which accounts for 18 percent. The airport has doubled its share of transfer traffic between Europe and China to 10 percent in the last half-decade and intends to compete with more established hubs. 

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