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Russian visitors boost Spain's tourism sector

MADRID -- Big-spending Russian tourists are flocking to Spain's beaches and famous landmarks in ever greater numbers, providing a much-needed boost to the recession-hit country's key tourism industry.

They are drawn by the country's mix of pleasant weather, sandy beaches, historic monuments and cultural attractions such as the Prado museum in Madrid and Antoni Gaudi's Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona.

Roman Gavrilenko, a 26-year-old elementary school psychologist from Murom in western Russia, visited Barcelona, Valencia, Toledo and Madrid with 11 other Russians during a one-week tour of Spain.

Spain was the Western European nation he had ever visited and said he now plans to return to the country with his grandmother.

“People are very friendly. The Sagrada Familia was really, really impressive. It was psychedelic, it made my head spin,” he said as he sat in the lobby of Hotel Florida Norte near Madrid's royal palace after completing a tour of the city.

The number of visitors from Russia surpassed 1 million last year for the first time, totaling 1,206,227, a 39.8-percent jump over 2011 and double the amount that arrived in 2010, according to tourism ministry figures.

Tourism officials credit a rise in the number of direct flights to Spain, easier visa rules, and the growing appetite of Russia's rapidly expanding middle class for foreign travel.

The Arab Spring uprisings have also played a role as Russian holidaymakers are shunning cheaper rival sunshine destinations in Egypt and Tunisia.

Spain is also reaping the rewards of having been one of the first countries to energetically target the new Russian market that emerged after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, said Igor Rotenshteyn, president of the Terramar Group tourist operator which last year brought about 100,000 Russians to Spain.

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In this July 12, 2012 photo, matador Sebastian Castella performs a pass with capote to a Victoriano del Rio Cortes' bull, during the sixth corrida of the San Fermin festival, at the the northern Spanish city of Pamplona's bullring. (AFP)

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