Russians have a secret escape hatch to Europe—Serbia

March 11, 2022, 12:09 PM UTC

Russian travelers hemmed in by airspace closures following the invasion of Ukraine are using Serbia as a backdoor route to visit resorts and cities across Western Europe.

Seat capacity between Russia and Serbia, where it has longstanding ties, surged by about 50% in the first week of March compared with pre-war levels. Onward travel to countries including France, Switzerland, Italy and Cyprus is up by almost two-thirds, according to ticketing trends specialist ForwardKeys.

Belgrade’s neutral stance over the conflict means flag carrier Air Serbia is able to serve Russia even though airlines in the European Union and Russia are barred by airspace bans from flying between the two regions. The operations provide a gateway into Europe for Russians who would otherwise have to detour via Turkey or the Persian Gulf.

Gateway to West

Air Serbia didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. The carrier has at least doubled capacity to Moscow and St. Petersburg since the war began last month, even adding a wide-body Airbus SE A330 aircraft previously used for flights to New York, according to a sales agent at Belgrade airport.

“We have become a hub, quite unexpectedly,” the agent said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t feel good about profiting from someone’s misfortune, but this is incredible. Almost all flights are fully booked, and the price of the ticket is no issue.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has pledged to remain neutral and retain ties to Moscow despite pressure on the former Yugoslav republic to participate in sanctions as it pushes to join the EU. Both nations share cultural roots, including predominantly Slavic ethnicities and ties to the Eastern Orthodox church.

‘Everything Difficult’

Despite the airspace bans, Russians aren’t prohibited from traveling to the EU. Some surface transport links remain open, including the railway line to Finland and roads into Finland and Latvia.

One Russian bound for Moscow after working at a shipyard in Italy said he’d traveled from Rome to Belgrade after direct flights were halted, with his employer funding his ticket.

“My bank is blocked, my employer can’t transfer my salary any more,” said the man, who referred to himself only as Alexander. “Everything has become difficult. Money, visas, travel, everything.”

Serbia has jumped to fourth place for Russian transfers from 12th previously, and has become the dominant hub for accessing other European nations, ForwardKeys said. Turkey ranks first overall, providing links to Georgia, Germany, the U.K. and U.S., followed by the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which are being used chiefly to reach U.S. and Asia-Pacific destinations.

Tracking of Air Serbia flights by FlightRadar24 show Belgrade-bound jets heading west from Moscow across the Baltic states to avoid Ukraine, before veering south over Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, all of which have severed links with Russia.

Travel from Russia via Serbia was previously focused on Montenegro, which captured 85% of the transfer market in January, aided by visa-free entry. That proportion has dropped to 40%.

Cyprus Tourism

Cyprus now draws 8% of Russians transferring in Belgrade, up from 0.3% in January. The holiday island, which is in the EU, relied on Russia for a fifth of tourists before the coronavirus crisis. France has jumped to 7% of the total, Switzerland 6% and Italy 5%, with none accounting for more than 1% previously.

Russians are also traveling to Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Spain and the U.K. via Belgrade, ForwardKeys said, with hardly any having done so in January.

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