Serbia pins hopes of post-coronavirus tourism revival on Chinese

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Serbia is pinning its hopes of a tourism revival on Chinese visitors as it emerges from its coronavirus lockdown.

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But the Balkan country faces a battle with other European countries to woo tourists from China as it tries to make up for a huge drop in tourism revenues because of the virus.

“The whole world is fighting for Chinese tourists ... when better times return, if ever, we must be ready to regain them,” Rasim Ljajic, Serbia’s tourism and trade minister, told Reuters.

The number of foreign tourists visiting Serbia was close to zero in April and the first half of May, according to tourism officials.

Ljajic expects a total drop of around 1 billion euros ($1.08 billion) in revenues from foreign tourists this year.

When the fall in revenues from local tourists is added, the losses could be “measured in billions” of euros, he said.

Ljajic is looking for help from a link-up between Serbia's Tourist Organisation and Fliggy, an online travel agency owned by Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba BABA.N which will start promoting travel to Serbia on Friday.

Landlocked Serbia lacks the beaches that attract tourists to neighbouring Croatia and Montenegro, but it has warm summers and mountain resorts, and the cities of Belgrade, Novi Sad and Nis are popular attractions.

Foreign currency from tourism accounts for around 2.5% of the country’s gross domestic product, and about 3% of the workforce is employed in tourism, according to official figures.

Chinese tourists made up about 10% of foreign tourists in 2019, a fivefold increase from 2018 after the two countries reached an agreement on visa-free entry. The percentage is considerably higher if visitors from other former Yugoslav republics are not included as foreign tourists.

Chinese restaurants have flourished in Belgrade and some street signs in the capital are now translated into Mandarin.

China sent medical aid and doctors to Serbia in March to help tackle the coronavirus, and Belgrade has referred to its “iron friendship” with Beijing. In the past decade, China has also extended billions of dollars in soft loans to Serbia. For Ilija Smiljanic, owner of the small Mark hotel in Belgrade, Chinese tourists are vital. Cafes and restaurants have started reopening but he put his business losses during the lockdown at 10 million dinars ($92,140).

“When their state allows them to go, they (Chinese visitors) start (arriving) en masse,” he said.

($1 = 0.9215 euros)

($1 = 108.5300 Serbian dinars)

($1 = 0.9268 euros)

Reporting by Aleksandar Vasovic; Editing by Paul Simao