China may not have qualified for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but that isn’t deterring Chinese tourists from visiting Russia to enjoy the premier event of the world’s largest sport. The World Cup, which begins on June 14 and lasts for a month, is taking place in the European part of Russia—meaning longer travel from China than if it were to take place closer to the Chinese border.
That’s far from enough to keep Chinese soccer fans at bay.
According to a Ctrip representative quoted in Chinese state media, some 100,000 Chinese tourists are expected to make the journey to Russia for the World Cup—certainly a sizeable number of tourists from a country that isn’t participating. Chinese tourism in Russia, in general, is on the upswing as well. In 2017, 1.5 million Chinese trips were made to Russia, representing a 16 percent year-over-year increase.
Another Chinese travel agency, Lvmama, also corroborated Chinese consumers surprisingly high interest in the World Cup, quoting an increase of 50 percent in bookings to Russia in the period from January to July.
However, as things often go with statistics related to Chinese tourism, things may be slightly misrepresented by tourism companies and state media. According to World Cup organizers FIFA, 37,000 out of 1.7 million tickets have gone to Chinese consumers—not a small number, yet even lagging behind another non-qualifier with an arguably lower interest in soccer: The United States. Of course, it’s also possible that the remaining 63,000 Chinese tourists reported by Chinese media are happy with just being close to the action.
Even so, it’s fair to say that China is having an outsized presence at the World Cup, and international media have been quick to report on quirky stories about Chinese soccer fans. For example, Chinese media reported on a Fujian superfan who paid a staggering 850,000 RMB ($133,016) to go to one game—this also based on an unverified Ctrip report. Meanwhile, the AFP ran a similar, but perhaps somewhat more reasonable, story about a Chinese superfan spending $10,000 to visit Russia and experience the tournament.
Other evidence of China’s outsized presence at the World Cup is the sponsors of the event. While many Western companies pulled out after the FIFA bribery and corruption scandal came to light, Chinese companies were fast to seize on the opportunity for a month in the global spotlight. Chinese sponsors this World Cup include Hisense, Vivo, Yadea, and the lately scandal-prone Dalian Wanda.
Chinese sponsors also extend beyond the aforementioned, somewhat internationally-known brands to Chinese brands that are essentially making their debut in the global spotlight. For example, a 7-minute commercial about Mengniu Group’s inner Mongolian milk and drinkable yogurt will be aired during each of the tournament’s 64 games.
“If more Chinese brother companies become FIFA sponsors like Wanda, we will join forces to advance the interests of China soccer,” Dalian Wanda’s Wang Jianlin said in a The Guardian report.
Xi Jinping, a self-proclaimed soccer fan, has a big ambition for China (or his own “Chinese dream,” if you will): That China qualifies for, hosts, and wins the World Cup by 2050. Last time China qualified was in 2002, but it would automatically qualify for the World Cup were it to host the tournament. It is believed that China is currently vying to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cup.
Hopefully, some of the Chinese tourists going to Russia for the World Cup this year will come back with both lessons on how to play World Cup-level soccer and how to host the World Cup. It’s the Chinese dream—for Chinese soccer superfans and Xi Jinping alike.