Serbia is pinning its hopes of a tourism revival on Chinese visitors as it emerges from its coronavirus lockdown.
"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.
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 which will start promoting travel to Serbia on Friday.
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 (USD 92,140).
"When their state allows them to go, they (Chinese visitors) start (arriving) en masse," he said.
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