○ Chinese businesses in Russia promise to hire more locals and help boost its economy
○ Russian officials are in fact calling for even more Chinese investment
Song, a businessman from Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, visited Lake Baikal in Russia's southern Siberia in January of 2016 at the invitation of a friend.
Once there, he not only was impressed by the magnificent landscape but also by the growing number of Chinese tourists arriving there to spend their winter holiday. He immediately saw a business opportunity.
With an initial investment of 80 million yuan (.3 million), Song soon acquired some land at Lake Baikal, where he is presently building four mid-range to upscale lakeside hotels. With a total of 220 rooms and suites in three locations on the lake's island of Olkhon, in the village of Listvyanka and near Baikal Pier, Song's first hotel is scheduled to open this March.
"The market is very promising," Song told the Global Times. "Existing local hotels are sub-standard, and the supply simply can't meet the rising demand."
Song is one of a growing number of Chinese investors who are eyeing the south Siberian tourism industry. But the sudden influx of Chinese tourists and investors, ubiquitous Chinese-language land sale advertisements and an ever-rising number of construction sites are also causing panic among local residents as well as Russian nationalists.
Over 57,000 Russians recently signed an online petition to ban all Chinese from land purchases at Lake Baikal. The petition was addressed to Russian politicians including President Vladimir Putin.
"Already, 10 percent of village land in Listvyanka belongs to the Chinese. If this goes on, then in five to 10 years our old Russian village will inevitably turn into one of the Chinese provinces," reads the sensationally worded petition, written in Russian by a netizen named Julia Ivanets.
It also complains that many Chinese tour guides tell visitors that Lake Baikal used to be Chinese territory and that now China hopes to re-conquer the area by buying it back.
"We MUST at least think about the future, if we do not want to be conquered!" it concluded, gaining coverage in Russian media, including Moskovsky Komsomolets, a tabloid.
Another article in Moskovsky Komsomolets quoted residents in Listvyanka as saying the Chinese have bought up all the best properties there, especially those facing the lake. Some residents also claimed that Chinese investors fail to respect the local environment by pumping their sewage directly into Lake Baikal.
Rumors and exaggerations
The number of Chinese tourists arriving at Lake Baikal every winter has risen in recent years after a folk love song by singer-songwriter Li Jian, "Baikal Lakeside," became a hit in China back in 2015.
On music app Netease Music, the song, whose lyrics describe the lake as "crystal clear and mysterious," has been listened to millions of times, along with over 40,000 comments from listeners.
Unlike traditional Russian tourism destinations such as Moscow and Saint Petersburg, which attract Chinese tourists with their cultural heritage, revolutionary history and mature tourism infrastructure, Lake Baikal is among the "off the beaten path" options for middle-class Chinese tourists seeking "an adventure."
Only a three-hour flight from Beijing, the region is also more convenient to travel to than Moscow. Last year, over 20 Chinese cities launched direct flights to Irkutsk, the base city for visiting Lake Baikal.