News about foreigners being able to get a free COVID vaccine in Serbia quickly went viral, so much that travel agencies soon started offering travel arrangements for vaccination in Serbia. In April 2021 the regional news cable channel N1 published an article on its web page in which the director of eUprava, Serbia’s official site for vaccination registration, Mr Mihailo Jovanović said: “It can be an Internet joke, but it also can be a dangerous online scam and provocation. So I am once again warning foreign citizens – no agency can bring you to Serbia for vaccination. Application procedure is either through the web page e-Uprava or through the contact centre”. We have found this claim to be mostly false.
The reason why Serbians started vaccinating foreign citizens was primarily because the expiration date of AstraZeneca vaccine was the 1st of April and secondarily at that time, quite a number of Serbians didn’t want to get vaccinated. The media hype began with statements that everyone is travelling to Serbia for vaccination. Regional media outlets blew this up and it was soon picked up by other European media. The most read Croatian and Bosnian news portals 24sata and Klix.ba included headlines such as “People from region massively rushed to get vaccinated in neighbouring Serbia” and “Serbia is massively vaccinating Bosnian citizens”. Associated Press and ABC News published that foreigners flocked to Serbia to get vaccinated and The Guardian picked up the statement from their president Aleksandar Vučić where he begged Serbians to get the vaccine.
Soon Serbia became the hotspot for vaccination and affirmed itself as a “covid tourism” destination. Travel agencies offering different travel arrangements to Serbia became the focus of media’s attention, with most of these agencies operating either in Turkey or in Italy. While some media outlets just put the word out about their existence, some backed up Mr Jovanović’s statement saying that these offers might be a scam because one Italian agency – Viaggi Salvadori – offered Moderna vaccine which was not available in Serbia
Two travel agencies, one destination
In our research we found that two travel agencies kept coming up. They offered arrangements which included accommodation, trip and vaccination in Serbia. Those agencies were the already mentioned Italian travel agency Viaggi Salvadori and the Turkish travel agency EXP-ERT DMC. We tracked them down and found their brochures posted on social media.
Italian agency Viaggi Salvadori offered the travel package presented in the social media post. It listed the vaccinations and offered a local assistant on the arrival, stay in the hotel and facultative excursion, but with travel expenses excluded. Their owner Mr Sassateli Salvadori explained their offer for Corriere di Bologna: “If you for instance take a package for two people, for about 500 Euros, with added cost of the flight or the car, we guarantee help with filling the form in Cyrillic and choosing preferred vaccine, help with booking the flight or car rental, guide on arrival, four stars hotel in a double room as well as cultural visit in addition to the “visit” to the vaccination hub. Throughout the all four days”.
Turkish agency EXP-ERT DMC offered a travel package for 799 Euros. This covered immunization with two doses of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine, stay in a four-star hotel, two return plane tickets, transfer to the clinic and the Turkish-Serbian translator. On the 9th of April the Serbian embassy in Turkey said that they would no longer vaccinate foreigners until further notice. Soon after the original brochure of this arrangement and the official website was no longer available. Instead, they posted the new publication on their Facebook page where they explained that the vaccination was a bonus service: “However, we must note again that our main responsibilities as EXP-ERT DMC are plane tickets and accommodation, whereas other listed services (such as arrangement of vaccination) are a bonus which we offer to our esteemed clients”. The emphasis is on the fact that they offer transportation and accommodation in Serbia – as any other tourist agency would – but they still list vaccination as a bonus service.
Furthermore, the other part of Mr Jovanović’s statement, saying that the only way a person can get vaccinated in Serbia is either through registering on eUprava page or calling the contact centre, we have found to be false. One Croatian investigative journalism TV magazine called Potraga reported that Serbia still vaccinated 2600 foreigners even though they previously hadn’t registered anywhere. This means that people could come to Serbia – in this case people who bought travel arrangements – and they could get the vaccine with the help of local translators, and without having to register at eUprava’s website.
A month after Mr Jovanovic’s claim, we tried to fill out a form on eUprava page to state our interest for vaccination in Serbia. It seems that right now it is impossible to apply as foreigner without a Serbian phone number. Even when we checked the option “Foreigners without stay in Serbia”, it is still impossible to submit the form without a Serbian phone number included in the personal details section. However, this can be easily solved with the help of, as the travel agencies call them, “local assistants”.
Another fact-checking website called Teyit did research about a similar claim and concluded that: “Even if countries do not openly admit the existence of this type of service, they try to have benefits from high demand because of non-existent law regulations and vaccine restrictions”.
Therefore, even though it is true that no travel agency can directly ensure the vaccine, they do help out with the administration, offer the assistance and transfer foreigners to Serbia. Thus, we conclude that the statement made by Mihailo Jovanović is mostly false.
RESEARCH | ARTICLE © Lara Anić & Nina Čepo, Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb
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