Russians are flocking to Serbia to receive western-approved Covid-19 vaccines.
lthough Russia has its own vaccine, known as Sputnik V, international health authorities have not yet approved its use.
That means Russians who want to travel freely need to show that they have received a western-made jab.
Serbia is a convenient choice for vaccine-seeking Russians because they can enter the allied Balkan nation without visas and because it offers a wide choice of jabs.
Vaccination tour packages for Russians seeking shots endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) appeared on the market in mid-September, according to Russia’s Association of Tour Operators.
Russians can be spotted at hotels, restaurants, bars and vaccination clinics in Serbia’s capital, Belgrade.
Serbia, which is not a member of the European Union, is a convenient choice for vaccine-seeking Russians because they can enter the allied Balkan nation without visas and because it offers a wide choice of western-made shots.
Vaccine tourist Nadezhda Pavlova, 54, said after receiving the vaccine last weekend at a sprawling Belgrade vaccination centre: “We took the Pfizer vaccine because we want to travel around the world.”
Her husband, Vitaly Pavlov, 55, said he wanted “the whole world to be open to us, rather than just a few countries”.
The executive director of Russia’s Association of Tour Operators, Maya Lomidze, said vaccine tour prices start at 300-700 dollars (£220-£514), depending on what is included.
Lauded by Russian president Vladimir Putin as world’s first registered Covid-19 vaccine, Sputnik V emerged in August 2020 and has been approved in some 70 countries, including Serbia.
But the WHO has said global approval is still under review after citing issues at a production plant a few months ago.
On Friday, a top WHO official said legal issues holding up the review of Sputnik V were “about to be sorted out”, a step that could relaunch the process toward emergency use authorisation.
Other hurdles remain for the Russian application, including a lack of full scientific information and inspections of manufacturing sites, said Dr Mariangela Simao, a WHO assistant director-general.
Apart from the WHO, Sputnik V is also still awaiting approval from the European Medicines Agency before all travel limitations can be lifted for people vaccinated with the Russian formula.
The long wait has frustrated many Russians, so when the WHO announced yet another delay in September, they started looking for solutions elsewhere.
“People don’t want to wait; people need to be able to get into Europe for various personal reasons,” explained Anna Filatovskaya, a Russky Express tour agency spokeswoman in Moscow.
“Some have relatives. Some have business, some study, some work. Some simply want to go to Europe because they miss it.”
Serbia, a fellow-Orthodox Christian and Slavic nation, offers the Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Chinese Sinopharm jabs.
By popular demand, Russian tourist agencies are now also offering tours to Croatia, where tourists can receive the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, without the need to return for a second dose.
“For Serbia, the demand has been growing like an avalanche,” Ms Filatovskaya said. “It’s as if all our company is doing these days is selling tours for Serbia.”
The Balkan nation introduced vaccination for foreigners in August, when the vaccination drive inside the country slowed after reaching around 50% of the adult population.
Official Serbian government data shows that nearly 160,000 foreign citizens so far have been vaccinated in the country, but it is unclear how many are Russians.
In Russia, the country’s vaccination rate has been low. By this week, almost 33% of Russia’s 146 million people have received at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, and 29% were fully vaccinated.
Apart from Sputnik V and a one-dose version known as Sputnik Light, Russia has also used two other domestically designed vaccines that have not been internationally approved.
Russian health minister Mikhail Murashko recently said administrative issues were among the main holdups in the WHO’s review process.