When Denis Ovchinnikov read the news this summer that his Russian Sputnik V vaccine would not be recognised in Europe, he decided to take matters into his own hands and planned a trip to Belgrade.
“I contacted a travel agency that sorted everything out. It was very easy. I made a little holiday out of it too, in between getting the two Pfizer shots,” Ovchinnikov, who works at a PR agency in St Petersburg, said.
When Russia became the first country to register and mass-produce a vaccine at the end of 2020, President Vladimir Putin hoped it would allow the country to open up more quickly than its western rivals. But Sputnik V has struggled to get international approval, effectively barring Russians from travelling to the west, where only those with EU, US or UK-approved vaccinations are able to visit.
This has led to a boom in Russian vaccine tourists heading to nations such as Serbia, which allow visa-free travel from Russia. “I don’t really understand all the politics behind this. I believe in all vaccines,” said Ovchinnikov, who first got the Sputnik V vaccine last winter. “I just felt trapped, for almost two years now I haven’t been able to travel and work in Europe any more after the borders shut, so this was my way out.”
EU and World Health Organization approval of the vaccine would ease international travel for Sputnik-vaccinated Russians, who are currently barred from travelling to most European capitals. The US is also set to ban entry to non-citizens who have not been jabbed with a vaccine approved by the WHO or US Food and Drug Administration.
However, the EU has repeatedly delayed the approval of the Russian vaccine and has said Russia hasn’t provided its regulator, the European Medicines Agency (EMA), with the right data about the vaccine. Russia has dismissed these claims as politically motivated and said the EMA was “dragging its feet” on purpose.
Anna Filatovksaya, manager at the Russian Express travel agency, said that Sputnik V’s troubles abroad presented a business opportunity for her firm. “When we started to offer our vaccine tours in early September, we quickly realised there was a real market for them. People were desperate for a vaccine that would allow them to travel again.”
In a recent survey in Russia, about 40% of respondents said the opportunity to freely travel was the main reason for getting a jab, a figure roughly equal to that for those who cited health concerns.
Filatovksaya said that Serbia was an “obvious” option at first, as Russians didn’t require visas to go there and the country offered the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines to all citizens.
The Balkan nation has been one of the early vaccine success stories in Europe, securing jabs from a number of different suppliers, and has been offering its citizens the option of western vaccines, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca, Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinovac.
Roughly 160,000 foreigners, mainly from elsewhere in the Balkans, have so far received their Covid-19 vaccines in Serbia, according to official data.
However, Serbia isn’t the only destination for Russians. After some clients complained about the “inconvenient” three-week gap between the two-component Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots, Filatovksaya’s tourism agency decided to provide trips to neighbouring Croatia, which offered the one-component Johnson & Johnson vaccine to foreigners.
One of those flying to Croatia was Oleg Sentsov, an engineer from Moscow. “I actually got jabbed right after getting a third Sputnik V booster so I am pretty vaccinated right now! I don’t believe you can be over-immunised,” he said.
While for many such as Ovchinnikov and Sentsov a foreign jab presented a way out of isolation, a smaller group said they were getting a western shot because they distrusted Russian vaccines. “I thought if I was going to get one vaccine, it would not be Sputnik, I am sceptical towards Russian-made products,” said 54-year-old Marina Kalushiva, who travelled to Serbia in September.
Although domestically produced vaccines are widely available, only 32% of Russians are double vaccinated and surveys show that the majority are still not ready to get immunised, as they distrust the three approved homegrown vaccines.
Critics have blamed the failing vaccination campaign on the Kremlin’s mixed messaging about the pandemic as well as a low trust in the authorities and domestically manufactured products.
And while distrust appears to be high towards all vaccines, a poll conducted in June showed that 15% of Russians who are refusing a domestic one would take a western jab if it were made available to them, as growing calls to allow western vaccines to be given are starting to be heard.
“I wish Russia would just offer any vaccine available on the market. That would be the fair thing to do. Let the people decide,” Kalushiva said.