COVID cabin fever creates a middle class Balkan jetset

COVID cabin fever creates a middle class Balkan jetset
With popular European destinations closed to tourists, Balkan holidaymakers are heading for the Maldives instead.
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje April 9, 2021

As Serbian hospitals were filling up with coronavirus (COVID-19) patients again, provocative Instagram photos of Serbian singer Jelena Karleusa, known as “Lady Gaga of Serbia”, sunning herself in Dubai appeared on Instagram. With much of Europe under lockdown amid the latest wave of the pandemic, Karleusa shared poses of herself in skimpy bikinis and in front of the iconic Burj Al Arab with her 2.4mn followers. 

But it’s not only celebrities and the very rich who are taking exotic vacations. Travel agencies from the ex-Yugoslavia region report strong interest in destinations such as Dubai, Egypt and the Maldives as long haul holidays have become affordable for the growing middle class — not only in prosperous Slovenia, but in lower income aspiring EU members such as North Macedonia and Serbia. And after more than a year of fear, stress and boredom, people are more than ready to spend money on the holiday of a lifetime. 

The long haul option has been a lifeline for the distressed outbound travel industry too. With most European destinations closed to visitors during the latest lockdowns, enterprising travel agencies from the Balkans have been opening up further flung destinations to an eager audience from the region. 

“People are tired of all the restrictions and staying at home so they are ready to get their life and freedom back. That's why they want to travel again,” director of one of the most popular Slovenian tourist agencies, Lifetime experience, Lado Rot, said in comments emailed to bne IntelliNews.

Long, sunny and sandy beaches on the other side of the world are all the more enticing now that European destinations are closed. And the travel agencies are offering plenty of destinations from Zanzibar and the Maldives to Dubai and Mexico, as after a dismal 2020 they reorientate from the near neighbourhood to long haul destinations, many of which allow entry with a PCR test. 

Exotic offers 

As traditionally popular destinations in Europe — Prague, Vienna, Budapest and Rome — are closed for Macedonian tourists for the time being, travel agencies in the country are offering Dubai, Egypt, the Maldives and the Dominican Republic among other exotic destinations, which are attracting quite a lot of interest amid the craziness of the lockdowns.

Since many people have already survived the virus, or simply do not feel afraid to travel, this is a unique opportunity to escape reality and try something new, which otherwise they would not have a chance to do.

Prices, according to sector pundits, are affordable even for the middle class. A normal family with average net income of €460 can afford one such trip, at least one in a lifetime. The amount people from North Macedonia spend on foreign travel increased sharply in the years immediately before the pandemic. According the Knoema statistics platform, outbound tourism from North Macedonia was worth $282mn in 2019, up 8.9% from a year earlier. This followed a 25.1% increase in 2018, the biggest rise in the last ten years. Naturally, outbound travel slumped in 2020, while domestic tourism did better as people took holidays in their home countries.

The government adopted several economic packages for firms and people to alleviate the consequences of the pandemic, but outbound tour operators were not a priority as the help was mostly intended for firms that bring tourists to local cities. The sector, which employs about 10,000 people, was left without state assistance during the crisis, said one industry insider who preferred to remain anonymous.

A recent survey on the consequences of the pandemic for the tourism sector in North Macedonia supported by USAID showed that there is no firm which was not affected, pointing to the need for state help to support these companies. 83% of the polled firms expected revenues to drop by over 50% in the last quarter of 2020. Travel agencies account for 10% of all companies in North Macedonia’s tourism sector.

A new business model

Ana Bogoevska, reservation manager at Savana tourist agency in Skopje, admitted that the tourism sector, as the most affected by the pandemic, has been facing challenges for a whole year, but says travel agencies are still determined to offer interesting and safe trips.

Additional difficulties, as she told bne IntelliNews by email, are closed borders in Europe, where it is impossible to go even with a negative PCR test. Only other Western Balkan countries (except Kosovo) can be visited without PCR tests at present. However, travel to a number of more exotic destinations is possible wth a PCR test though the rules are being changed very often and vary for different countries.

“We expect the measures to be relaxed for trips in Turkey, so that after April 15 we can travel there without a PCR test,” Bogoevska said. Egypt, Dubai and the Maldives are also open, but PCR tests are needed.

“All these challenges affect travelling habits. Fear of the global pandemic is definitely present among travellers, making people to be more careful, so this year, trips in groups are absent or are very rare,” she said.

Another North Macedonia travel agency, Atlantis, also offers destinations for individual or group travels like the Maldives and the Dominican Republic, and soon will organise charter flights to Egypt. “Trips are safe with PCR tests needed. Everything goes smoothly,” an employee from the agency said.

Prices vary depending on the timing, but they range from just over €300 for a package holiday in Dubai to close to €1,400 for a trip to the Maldives for Orthodox Easter. 

Dubai is not only a sought-after destination for vacations, particularly in the spring, but many young people from North Macedonia work there or in other tourist resorts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). “I live [for work] in a village [in the UAE] surrounded by hills near the sea, where the weather is cooler. Summer is very hot in Dubai, so don’t go there in summer, now is much better,” Filip, who recently came to visit his hometown Skopje, said in an informal chat. And he added: “We are all vaccinated there, so don’t be afraid.”

Backlash amid the third wave 

Unfortunately, North Macedonia was hit by the third wave of the pandemic since mid-February, after the number of infections subsided in the previous two months, which ruined some of the tourist agencies’ plans.

“There was interest in Zanzibar before the outbreak of the third wave of the pandemic one month ago, but not now,” an employee from a Skopje-based tourist agency, who insisted on not being named, told bne IntelliNews in a phone conversation.

This is mainly because the authorities recently imposed a 14-day quarantine for holidaymakers who return from African countries, due to the fears of spreading the South African variant of the virus. This followed public criticism over travel to distant destinations during the pandemic mostly from portals financed by the opposition parties.

The anonymous interviewee complained that negative comments from the Twitter community as well as fake news about trips to exotic destinations are damaging the tourism sector and represent “bad marketing”. In March, two government officials from North Macedonia were “caught”, one visiting Mexico and the other Dubai. This sparked harsh reactions from opposition parties and the opposition media as well as the Twitter community.

“There was a lynching of people who recently returned from vacations in Zanzibar,” said the anonymous interviewee, claiming that going to distant trips is much safer than enjoying food and drinks in crowded local café bars and restaurants in North Macedonia. “The virus is spreading mostly in the local environment by people who do not respect the measures. Going on vacation to the Maldives with PCR tests is much safer,” he said.

Changed priorities

Despite the pandemic, tour operators in Slovenia are preparing for a busier spring and summer. However, the uncertainty related to COVID-19 has naturally changed people’s priorities. “There is a lot of fear and hazards in people’s minds so they do not want to travel on their own any more and would rather contact a travel specialist like us to organise everything for them. Safety is our priority,” Rot said, adding that for that reason the agency offers individual and small group tours. In 2021, Lifetime Experience will organise trips to exotic but safe destinations such as the Maldives and Zanzibar.

“This year we are focused on attractive destinations for a reasonable price and limited or no travel restrictions. In Slovenia there is a big interest in such trips as we are known as a nation who travel a lot,” Rot said. The deeper pockets of Slovenians compared to other nations in the region make these trips more affordable for them.

Recently, Slovenian officials advised citizens to avoid unnecessary trips at least until the situation calms down. However, Rot said that his agency's trips are safe and clients have not been infected with COVID-19. 

He said that in February there was the most interest in Zanzibar, while in March the focus switched to the Maldives. Other preferred destinations offered by the agency include Bali and Sumatra in Indonesia and Ayurveda treatments in India, but those trips were postponed due to the COVID-19 situation.

“Since the situation regarding the pandemic is changing quickly we are following the situation at destinations daily and if necessary we can postpone the tour or suggest a different exotic destination to our guests, if the situation get worse between the time of booking and the departure,” Rot said.

Slovenia has experienced several strong waves of the pandemic, and the authorities imposed another lockdown from April 1 to 11, the third in just over a year, including border restrictions, which will affect the tourist sector.

Closed borders particularly affected Slovenia’s outbound tourism. Pre-pandemic, total international expenditures by Slovenian tourists abroad totalled $1.68bn in 2019. Among the companies most affected by the crisis in Slovenia are travel agencies and tour operators, and only those catering to the domestic market were helped by the government’s voucher scheme to encourage travel to local tourist sites. 

A gift in the desert 

Jungle Tribe is one of the most popular travel agencies in Serbia that offers exotic destinations throughout the year. Now, when most of Europe is closed, the Red Sea resort of Hurghada in Egypt has become the hottest destination for affordable travel. The average salary in Serbia is €537, half of that in Slovenia, and a nine-day stay in Hurghada at the beginning of May is coming in at under €450. Some of Jungle Tribe’s Hurghada packages for April are already sold out, according to the agency’s website. Dubai is another attractive location for Serbian tourists.

Serbia made a fast and early start to vaccinating its population, having secured vaccines from multiple sources. Serbian government officials have said that the fact that Serbia is a leader in Europe in terms of the number of people vaccinated makes negotiations related to traveling to other countries significantly easier. Serbian PM Ana Brnabic said recently that by the end of April, 40% of the population will be vaccinated at least with one jab. This is expected to encourage people to travel more without fear of infection.

This is good news for Serbian travel agencies, after more than 2,000 people in Serbia lost their jobs in tourism due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the director of the National Association of Tourist Agencies of Serbia (YUTA), Aleksandar Senicic. According to Senicic, domestic travel agencies that organised trips abroad previously had a turnover of about €1.5bn each year. Last year the turnover was just €150mn, which means that more than €1.2bn of turnover was lost.

According to Knoema, Serbian tourists abroad spent $1.8bn in 2019, 9.9% up from the previous year. The biggest increase was registered in 2018 of an annual 19% to $1.64bn. Since 2010 the average annual growth rate was 7.71%.

Closer to home 

In normal years, people from the region tend to holiday closer to home. While Croatia is a traditional summer destination for Slovenians, Greece is more popular among Serbs and Macedonians. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about when the current wave of the pandemic will subside, and to what extent Southeast European holiday destinations will open up to tourists. 

However, Croatia, which was one of the first markets to reopen to tourists in 2020 is doing the same this year. It announced its reopening on April 1 after which more than 22,000 people flooded into the country for Easter weekend. 

Greece completely shut down its borders last year, but the full-of-beaches destination has decided to open to tourists for the upcoming season. Under the agreement reached by the tourism ministers of Serbia and Greece, Serbian tourists can go to Greece from mid-April so they will be able to celebrate the Orthodox Easter holidays at the beginning of May on Greek beaches. Low-cost carrier Wizz Air has announced two new flights from Belgrade to the Greek islands of Santorini and Crete from June. 

People from North Macedonia will most likely be allowed to visit the neighbouring country (with a PCR or antigen test, or vaccine) from May 14, as media reported, but the official decision is still pending. From Skopje, Bogoevska said that as summer approaches the interest in travel to Greece, Croatia, Turkey and other near abroad destinations is increasing, though Turkey has recently been reporting record infection numbers

“We already have a lot of interest and reservations for our Antalya charter programme, Kusadasi bus package in Turkey, hotel and private accommodation in Greece, as well as for Montenegro and Croatia,” she said.

And for those who are not thrilled by distant destinations, travelling to local tourist sites is still possible and all three countries have a lot to offer in that regard. Slovenia and Serbia have their spa and mountain centres, while North Macedonia has its lakes, of which the Ohrid, the pearl of the Balkans, is the most beautiful. Even with more overseas destinations opening up, staycations appear to be here to stay, at least in 2021.