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HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese fans are expected to travel to the 2018 World Cup finals in record numbers with the growing interest in soccer and a cordial relationship with hosts Russia seen as key factors, despite the national side's failings on the pitch.
China have only played at one World Cup and the current team face an uphill battle to book a berth at the next one, but Feng Tao, chief executive officer of marketing and events firm Shankai, believes fans will flock to Russia regardless.
"We are confident we can bring more fans to Russia because of the relationship between Russia and China," said Feng, whose company has signed an exclusive deal with BH Hospitality to sell travel packages for the tournament to the Chinese market.
"The countries are very close, it's much easier to go to Russia than it was to go to Brazil, which took 24 or 25 hours, or to South Africa, which took 14 or 15 hours. To go to Russia takes only seven hours from China, so it's easier.
"Historically, there's a good relationship between China and Russia and now football has become part of the mentality of the Chinese people. Businessmen, the media and fans are showing strong interest in the World Cup.
"Until now, the majority have only been able to follow the World Cup on television but now there's going to be the opportunity for them to travel to watch and for them to see a World Cup."
While the figures are unlikely to eclipse the numbers who travelled to South Korea to watch China play in 2002 -- as many as 100,000 were believed to have seen the side's World Cup debut -- Shankai are expecting 50,000 packages to be sold to Chinese fans as part of the expected $25 million deal.
The projected figure represents the most for a World Cup that does not feature the Chinese team, a significant upswing on the numbers sold for the 2014 World Cup finals, when 3,000 packages -- mainly at the highest end -- were sold.
"The fans who went to Brazil were spending more money," says John Parker, managing director of BH Hospitality.
"But what we are seeing in China is that they are waking up to the passion of sport and, because of the internet especially, they are now able to access everything they require and they are comfortable doing that.
"Tourism between Russia and China is very strong and the Chinese population is falling in love with soccer.
"The World Cup is the highest point of the game and Chinese fans will be able to go to Russia without any problems because the relationship between the two countries is so strong and healthy.
"China is going to be a growth market. It's already developing from where it was historically."
China are currently fifth in the six-team Group A of Asian World Cup qualifying on five points from six matches and travel to Tehran to face leaders Iran on Tuesday, where a defeat will likely end their chances of advancing to the finals.
The top two qualify automatically for Russia with the third-place finishers, currently Uzbekistan on nine points, entering a series of playoffs for another possible berth.
Reporting by Michael Church in Sydney; Editing by John O'Brien