Chinese Tourists Lured to Save Summer in Beijing’s European Ally

As Europe looks to salvage summer vacations after the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus, one country is courting visitors from 4,500 miles away.

Serbia is kicking off a marketing campaign Friday that will target tourists from China, where Covid-19 first emerged. The eastern European nation is using a platform run by Alibaba to tout its ancient monasteries, mountain resorts and lively nightlife in the capital, Belgrade.

There are challenges. Serbia remains subject to some lockdown measures while there are no direct flights between the two countries. What’s more, tourism generated just 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) for Serbia in 2019 — 3% of economic output, with travelers to the continent’s east usually opting for the more picturesque capitals of Prague or Budapest.

There is a logic to the plan, however. China’s current infection rate is way below most of Europe, where the pandemic hit later. And Chinese tourists were actually the biggest group touching down in Serbia last year, numbering 145,000 — a surge of more than 40%.

That’s largely down to politics. Increasingly criticized for encroaching on democracy, President Aleksandar Vucic has welcomed loans and investment from Beijing with few strings for the best part of a decade. China, along with Russia — which both sit on the United Nations Security Council — also backs Serbia’s opposition to Kosovo’s independence.

Recently, Vucic has accepted Chinese medical supplies to fight Covid-19 and used the Asian country’s draconian lockdown as a model for his own. He praised China for delivering masks and ventilators, called President Xi Jinping a “brother” and blasted Europe for “fairytale” solidarity — even as he pursues membership of the European Union.

For China, Serbia is one of the biggest successes in its quest to build economic ties with central and eastern Europe under the 17+1 program. That initiative hasn’t always gone to plan — as spats with the Czech Republic over Taiwan show. Post-virus outreach in Europe as a whole, meanwhile, has been hit and miss.

There’s not much chance of Chinese visitors encountering hostility in Belgrade, where a billboard recently lauded Xi’s help amid the pandemic.

“We’re waiting for them in Serbia when the situation over Covid-19 stabilizes,” the Trade and Tourism Ministry said by email. Tourists “need no visas and can count on hospitality and a friendly attitude toward China.”

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