Albanians, Bosnians rejoice at visa-free travel

TIRANA/SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Albanians raced to claim the honour of making the first visa-free visit to the European Union on Wednesday after the bloc eased entry rules, while Bosnians took a less euphoric approach despite travel discounts.

Enver Jaganjac shows his new biometric passport outside a police station in central Bosnian town of Zenica, 75 km (45 miles) from capital Sarajevo, December 15, 2010. The European Union decision to lift visa requirements for travellers from Albania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, aiming to encourage democratic reforms in the Balkan states, came into effect on Wednesday. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic (BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA - Tags: POLITICS )

The EU lifted visa requirements for Albanian and Bosnian holders of biometric passports at midnight on December 15, leaving Kosovans as the only Balkan citizens still needing visas for all trips to EU countries.

Firecrackers greeted the first cars arriving at Albania’s land crossings with Greece and to board ferries to Italy.

“I am very happy, very proud. I have driven through snow to be the first,” said one 54-year-old Albanian, celebrating a milestone on the country’s long journey to EU membership.

He left without giving his name, and discovering that a 74-year-old woman had crossed an hour earlier as she knew what he had forgotten -- that due to the time difference Greek clocks had ticked to midnight an hour before Albania’s.

Bosnians could once travel widely without visas when they were citizens of the now-defunct Yugoslavia, but lost the right when the country disintegrated in the 1990s.

Low temperatures and a chronic lack of money were the main reasons for an absence of euphoria among Bosnians, despite 50 percent discounts offered by a travel agency on “Schengen Day”, named after the EU’s free travel area.

Nevertheless, they were happy to see the visa requirement lifted. “I am glad, now I’ll be able to finally visit my cousin in France,” said Dzenana, a hairdresser, who has never gone abroad because she loathed waiting for long hours for a visa.

In contrast to Bosnia, where around only 420,000 citizens have obtained biometric passports out of a 3.8 million population, more than one million Albanians have paid 50 euros for such a document.

The EU decided last month to lift the visa requirements for travellers from the two countries, aiming to encourage democratic reforms in the Balkans, but warned that restrictions will be re-imposed if travel rules are abused.

Some EU governments doubt the two membership hopefuls can cope with problems such as illegal immigration and trafficking along drug routes from Asia to Europe, because of weak institutions and corruption.

Such concerns rose after relaxed visa requirements for citizens of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia last year led to a jump -- in some cases a fourfold increase -- in applications for asylum in the EU from the three Balkan countries.

Many impoverished Bosnians and Albanians see the relaxation as a chance to make money illegally in difficult times.

“As soon as I get a passport, I’ll go to Austria, where my cousin lives,” said a young man in Sarajevo who did not want to be named. “I’ll try to find a job on the black market there, I can earn more in three months there than here for a year.” (Editing by Maja Zuvela and David Stamp)