The number of Russian visitors to Croatia, a favorite destination for summer holidaymakers, soared this year – but this time because of those seeking COVID-19 shots for EU recognition.
The number of flights from Russia has increased in recent weeks and it's not unusual to hear Russian spoken at vaccination centers in the capital Zagreb. Foreigners, like locals, can get vaccines for free in Croatia.
"Just this month we've had about 1,000 Russians who received vaccines. So far we have had altogether 4,908 foreign citizens here, most of whom are Russians," said Neda Ferencic Vrban, who heads Zagreb's biggest vaccination center.
The Russian Express travel agency organizes vaccination trips to Croatia for Russians looking for a shot approved in the European Union.
"Demand is not just big, it's avalanche-like and growing exponentially each day. We started offering these tours at the end of September. At first there were single bookings, but now we book up to 50 people a day," said Anna Filatovskaya from Russian Express.
The trip includes flight, accommodation, medical insurance and a transfer to the vaccination center. Prices start at 36,000 roubles ($500).
In Russia, a QR code proving vaccinated status can only be given to people who have received Russia's Sputnik vaccine.
"We're allowed to enter Croatia with Sputnik. I'd like now to have a booster dose with Pfizer so I can travel to Europe without quarantine or tests," said Yuri from Moscow after taking a jab.
Most Russian visitors choose a weekend trip, but some also take in a visit to the coast or neighboring Slovenia.
"It has nothing to do with not trusting the Russian vaccine. Sometimes there is a need to travel to Europe, so we had the idea of getting vaccinated in Croatia," said Moscow resident Natalya Noks, now back at home after visiting Zagreb and Slovenia.
Russian Express expects interest in the vaccine trips to continue.
"People who need to travel to Europe and countries where the Sputnik vaccine has not been approved will search for a way to receive the required foreign jab," said Filatovskaya.