Serbia: New Eldorado of Chinese tourists - The360 Travel

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  • Sunday, December 15, 2019

    Serbia: New Eldorado of Chinese tourists

    Serbia: New Eldorado of Chinese tourists

    A bride dressed in white runs in a field, sail of tulle in the wind, pursued by his promise: it is not a Hollywood production, but a marriage supposed to be typically Serbian, organized for Chinese tourists.

    In this Balkan country, which until recently has been left out of the Asian tour operators' programs, Chinese tourism is growing exponentially. To the point of representing the first contingent among foreign tourists entered Serbia during the first eight months of the year (1.2 million), with 92,000 Chinese visitors counted by the Serbian authorities. That's five times more than all year 2016...

    The visa exemption, good bilateral political and economic relations, moderate prices are all reasons given to explain this phenomenon. And the Serbs are responding, with the flourishing of Chinese restaurants, signage in Mandarin in places frequented by these new visitors, and even Chinese policemen sent to Belgrade to help their compatriots.

    The stakes are high for Serbia, a country of 7.1 million people working to catch up economically in Western Europe. Tourism, which accounts for only 3% of GDP, and is mainly concentrated in Belgrade, is a factor of potential development.

    Far from the capital in the west of the country, Zeljko Sredic, owner of the holiday village of Gostoljublje, a collection of small houses built to look like typical houses, quickly felt the blow. Three years ago, he began to contact tour operators to offer them this fictitious Serbian marriage ceremony, which was supposed to be traditional, with the backdrop of valleys and farms.

    "We chose to do weddings because they include all the customs: gastronomic culture, songs, dances, costumes etc," he explains.

    The adventure, originally intended for tourists from all walks of life, finally seduces a clientele largely Chinese.

    The fiancée runs away

    On a sunny Saturday, two large coaches full of tourists from Shanghai land in Gostoljublje. Welcomed to the sound of folk music, they are immediately trained by their Serbian hosts in a "kolo", a traditional dance.

    The Chinese "always want something unusual, something different. And that's not what you'll find in conventional travel agencies, "says Katarina Jovancic, the guide that accompanies this group.

    White dresses are given to women, men receive caps such as worn by local farmers. Everyone is told their role for the upcoming ceremony. Tourists will have to pretend to shoot in an apple as the bridegroom used to do, drive a horse-drawn cart or "negotiate" the price of a dowry.

    This is the moment chosen by a Chinese "fiancée" to rewrite the script and flee to the hills before being caught by her "fiance", played by a Serb.

    Everyone meets around the meal, supposedly typical Serbian but actually adapted to the taste of visitors, significantly lighter in fat ... The kajmak, a kind of thick cream very popular in Serbia, has disappeared from the menus. "We originally wanted to offer authentic Serbian cuisine, but we realized that it was not realistic," Zeljko Sredic says.

    The explosion in the number of Chinese tourists began in 2017 when Serbia became the first country in Europe to provide them with visas. Since then, Bosnia has followed suit, while Albania and Montenegro have relaxed entry conditions.

    "No friend more sincere"

    "For many years, the political relations between the two countries have been extremely good," says Miodrag Popovic, head of the Belgrade Tourist Board. China "has no more reliable partner than Serbia, no friend more sincere," said in September President Aleksandar Vucic.

    The Serbs are particularly grateful to the Chinese for not recognizing the independence of their former southern province of Kosovo.

    Serbia is also seen as a gateway to the rest of the region, says Flora Xu, a guide for the Chinese tourist agency 54 Traveler. Since "neighboring countries have also opened their doors to the Chinese" by easing visa procedures, "people have become interested in this part of the world they never heard of," she said. After Serbia, she has to take her group to Montenegro and Bosnia.

    This good deal is reflected in the economic sector. The Chinese build bridges and highways, have acquired mines or the huge steel complex of Smederevo and are competing with the French for the subway project in Belgrade.

    Xin Li, a 37-year-old engineer who played the father of the groom in the fake ceremony, is delighted with this first approach with Europe: "It was an interesting story, it's so different from our traditional Chinese marriages" .

    For Serbia, which does not have the spectacular coastline of its Croatian neighbor, tourists are a welcome source of foreign currency. Last year, the sector reported 1.5 billion euros, according to the central bank.

    In Gostoljublje, we rub our hands. "It's very important to continue to live the way marriages were once celebrated," says Milija Lazovic, a musician and a member of the folk music group that accompanied the ceremony. "Everyone gets involved if needed and everyone can win something."

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