A “bride” in a pretty white dress and sneakers runs through a field, her long white veil fluttering behind it and her “groom” chasing her.
It’s not a scene from the Hollywood hit “Runaway Bride,” but a traditional Serbian wedding ceremony – just with most of the roles played by Chinese tourists.
Attracted by visa-free travel and low cost compared to Western Europe, the Chinese come to Serbia in droves.
The landlocked Balkans are now one of the fastest growing destinations in Europe for Chinese travelers. He topped the charts and rolled out the red carpet last year.
From Chinese restaurants to Mandarin street signs, infrastructure has developed rapidly.
The Chinese police were even sent out onto the streets of Belgrade in the summer to communicate with their compatriots, a program that has also been carried out in other European cities.
And in rural western Serbia, the locals have also found a way to claim a piece of cake in the small, picturesque holiday village of Gostoljublje.
Zeljko Sredic, who owns the resort of wooden vacation homes, offers a full Serbian wedding experience without having to really strain.
“We chose weddings because they include all the customs: the culture of the kitchen, the singing, the dance, the costumes and so on,” he told AFP.
Since the beginning of two years, the wedding extravagance has been promoting the Chinese in particular against rolling hills and farmland.
Costumes and dancing
On a Saturday, two busloads of tourists, mostly from Shanghai, were greeted with folk music and dragged into a traditional circular “kolo” dance by their Serbian hosts.
“They always want something unusual, something different, and you definitely can’t find that in agencies that offer typical tours,” said Katarina Jovancic, the group’s Serbian guide, on the sidelines of the dance.
Next, women were given traditional white aprons while men donned boat-shaped peasant hats and thrown into their “wedding” roles.
Laughter broke out as they were led through a number of rural traditions, including shooting an apple, going up a hill in a horse-drawn carriage, and “negotiating” a price for the bride.
To everyone’s surprise, the Chinese bride put her own stamp on the ceremony by walking into the mountains before being “captured” by the groom, who was played by a local Serb.
The celebration ended with food and drink, although some of Serbia’s milk-heavy dishes, such as the creamy cheese known as kajmak, were dropped to suit Chinese tastes.
“We wanted to offer authentic Serbian cuisine, but it turned out that it wasn’t realistic,” said Sredic.
Also read: Indonesia is one of the most popular Chinese New Year travel destinations for Chinese tourists
China’s “best friend”
Of the 1.2 million people who visited Serbia in the first eight months of this year, the Chinese dominated with 92,000 arrivals, or more than five times the total for all of 2016.
The boom began in 2017 when Serbia became the first country in Europe to scrap visas for its Far East ally, a sign of the two nations’ flourishing political ties.
China has “no partner who is more reliable than Serbia, nor a friend who is more sincere,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic proudly in September.
Belgrade and Beijing have been particularly close allies since the 1990s, and economic ties have grown in recent years.
For China, Serbia is an important base on the European continent for its global infrastructure ambitions to transport goods to western markets.
Belgrade, for its part, welcomes the investment as Chinese companies build bridges and highways across the country and track down a collection of indebted mines and industrial facilities.
Chinese tourists also see Serbia as a gateway to the rest of the region, said Flora Xu, a guide with Chinese travel agency 54 Traveler.
Neighboring Bosnia recently followed suit by dropping visa requirements, while Albania lifted them for the tourist season and Montenegro made it easier for large groups to enter.
“Because the other neighbors have also opened their gates to the Chinese,” the loosening of the visa regulations made people interested in this part of the world they hadn’t heard of before, “the leader told AFP.
For younger travelers like Xin Li, a 37-year-old electrical engineer who played the “father of the groom” at the mock wedding, the Balkans offers a cheaper European experience than more expensive capital cities in the west.
“It’s the first time we’re going to Europe,” he told AFP, saying he and his wife are excited “to see something different”.
Your tour began in Belgrade and was supposed to meander through western Serbia, stop in mountain and coastal towns in Montenegro, and end in Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia.
The nine-day Balkans tour that the tourists targeted by AFP spoke to cost around 9,980 yuan (US $ 1,426), excluding flights.
Local economy and heritage
Serbia cannot boast of its neighbor Croatia’s stunning coastline, but Chinese visitors flock to the historic Kalemegdan Fortress in Belgrade and the capital’s shopping districts.
Some tours even stop at the site of the former Chinese embassy that was bombed by NATO in 1999.
The tourist trail also includes the western mountain region of Zlatibor.
The country has invested millions of euros in its tourism sector in recent years, with the influx of travelers being a welcome source of money.
Tourism to Serbia brought in 1.5 billion euros last year and contributed more than three percent to GDP.
In Gostoljublje, weddings have another advantage.
“This is very important in keeping the story of what weddings looked like in the past,” said Milija Lazovic, leader of a quartet of folk singers who led the experience with around a dozen other locals.
“Everyone is involved when necessary so that everyone can earn something,” he added.
Your premium period will expire in 0 day (s)