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Why are Russian 'vaccine tourists' flocking to Europe?

A growing number of Russians are heading to Europe to get a COVID-19 jab as "vaccine tours" gain momentum. But why is the European shot so coveted? A DW investigation looks for answers.

A phone with a display reading: EU Digital Covid Certificate

The EU digital COVID-19 certificate allows holders to travel freely through Europe

It's unclear whether the Russian homegrown vaccine Sputnik V will be approved anytime soon in the West, making life difficult for many Russian nationals. That's because entry to many countries requires proof of vaccination against COVID-19 with a jab that is approved in the European Union (EU).

It's not only tourists who are affected. Many Russian citizens also travel abroad, for example, on business or to visit relatives. Without proof of vaccination, they cannot even eat out in a restaurant or check into a hotel in some countries.

Months ago, the situation was drastically different. In April, a number of Europeans traveled to Russia to be vaccinated with Sputnik V there. At the time, COVID-19 incidence rates in EU countries were high and vaccines were only available to people who were particularly at risk from the virus because of their age, health condition or their profession.

In Russia, by contrast, Sputnik V was easily and quickly available. But by September, the situation had reversed — and demand COVID-19 shots in Russia dropped as Russians became interested in getting vaccinated in Europe instead.

Watch video 04:52

Russia offers all-inclusive vaccine tours

Serbia most popular among 'vaccine tourists'

"In September, regular customers of some travel companies realized that the approval process for Sputnik V was dragging on. So they asked the companies to help them get access to a vaccine approved by the WHO (World Health Organization)," said Maya Lomidze, head of the Association of Tour Operators in Russia (ATOR). That's how "vaccine tours" came about, she said.

Together with foreign partners, travel companies have started organizing tours to countries where foreigners can get inoculated, she said.

Currently, a Russian tourist can get vaccinated without major hurdles in only three European countries. The most popular is Serbia, followed by Croatia and Greece. Serbia is top of the list because of its accessibility, as Russians do not need a visa to enter the country and the vaccine itself is free of cost. Many Russians also travel to Croatia — even though they need a visa — to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires a single dose.

A vial of vaccine with a needle

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one dose, is popular with 'vaccine tourists'

Demand for the required foreign jabs have surged. In September, tour companies were organizing about 10-to-20 vaccination trips per month. By the end of October, they were already receiving the same amount of inquiries per day for the foreign shots.

Maya Lomidze does not expect demand to dwindle until Sputnik V is approved by the WHO or the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Watch video 12:01

COVID-19 Special: How good is Sputnik V?

Some Russians get the jab in Germany

According to Iwetta Werdija of the Russian tour operator BSI Group, there are several reasons vaccine tourism is so popular at the moment. "Those who receive a vaccine approved by the WHO or by EU countries also get many opportunities to travel to European countries. Some want to be able to visit their elderly parents in Europe, others have children there or are constantly on business trips. They can't take tests every three days to go to a restaurant."

The BSI Group also offers Russians vaccine trips to Germany. However, they are very expensive and also difficult to get. Maya Lomidze said that the vaccination alone costs €500 to €800 ($563-$901) in Germany. In addition, there is the fee for a BSI Group translator of €60, and prices for accommodation and other services in Germany are much higher than in Serbia or Croatia, she added.

Vaccinating foreigners is not officially allowed in Germany but in some cases people were not even asked for a passport before the jab, according to the Russian tour operator Chayka-Tour. "There are no package tours to Germany for those wanting to get jabbed there, and there can be none currently because vaccination is not a reason for entry into Germany," the company said.

People in front of a vaccination center

Heading to Germany to get an EU-approved COVID-19 shot is expensive for Russians

'Being able to travel the world freely'

David Afanasiadi from Moscow got a chance to get an EU-approved jab during a business trip. The young man told DW that a recent trip to Monaco took him through the Nice airport in southern France. He spent some time in the French city since he still had a tourist visa dating from before the pandemic and a business invitation to enter the country.

Although Afanasiadi had already received the Sputnik V vaccine and had a certificate, he was eager to get a jab recognized in Europe. "There is no point in talking about trust in this or that vaccine. I am not a doctor. But I wanted to be vaccinated with a universally recognized vaccine so that I could travel around the world more easily," David Afanasiadi said.

A local friend, who speaks French well, helped Afanasiadi with the whole process. She registered him for the shot through a website and helped him fill out the questionnaire and talk to the doctor, all of which required good language skills.

Thanks to his friend, Afanasiadi now has an EU digital Covid-19 vaccination certificate. He says anyone who can show proof of being vaccinated with Sputnik V needs just one dose of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine.

People in line at a vaccination center in France

Technically, it's possible for some Russian nationals to get a vaccine in France

Booster dose in Vienna

Like Afanasiadi, Saur Mugutdinov, a doctor from St Petersburg had already received both doses of Sputnik V when he came to Austria for an internship. But his vaccination status wasn't recognized in the European country.

Mugutdinov decided to get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The decisive factor, he said, was that only one dose was needed which meant that he could enjoy the travel benefits sooner.

"That saved me a lot of money on PCR and antigen testing," Mugutdinov said. "The situation is difficult now, even in the Schengen area there are border patrols checking QR codes. Also, you can't get into restaurants and bars without proof of vaccination," he said.

After getting his Johnson & Johnson dose at a shopping center in Vienna, the doctor undertook trips every weekend. Ever since, Mugutdinov has been vocal against vaccine skeptics and has taken to Russian social networks to persuade fellow citizens to get the shot.

"There are movements of anti-vaxxers everywhere but only in our country have they become mainstream," Mugutdinov said. "Nearly a majority of the population is against vaccination, I haven't seen anything like it anywhere else," he said of the situation in Russia.

Watch video 13:53

COVID-19 Special: Russia battles vaccine hesitancy

This article was originally written in Russian

Edited by: Jon Shelton