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Serbia, the Chinese tourist hot spot

Visa-free travel, low costs and unique ceremonial experiences have tourists from China flocking to Serbia in droves

KOSJERIC, SERBIA : A "bride" in a pretty white dress and trainers runs through a field, her long white veil fluttering behind and her "groom" in hot pursuit.

It is not a scene from a Hollywood movie but a traditional Serbian wedding ceremony - only with most of the roles played by Chinese tourists.

Enticed by visa-free travel and low costs compared with Western Europe, the Chinese have been flocking to Serbia in droves.

The landlocked Balkan state is now one of the fastest-growing destinations in Europe for Chinese travellers and it has been rolling out the red carpet. From Chinese restaurants to street signs in Chinese, infrastructure has quickly sprung up.

Chinese police were even dispatched to the streets of Belgrade in the summer to help communicate with their compatriots, a programme also piloted in other European cities.

In rural western Serbia, locals in the small, picturesque holiday village of Gostoljublje have found a way to claim a slice of the pie.

Mr Zeljko Sredic, who owns a resort of wooden holiday homes, lays on a full Serbian wedding experience, without actually getting hitched.

"We chose to do weddings because they include all the customs - the culture of cuisine, song, dance, costumes and so on," he said.

Against rolling hills and farmland, the wedding extravaganza has been wooing the Chinese in particular since it began two years ago.

On a recent Saturday, two busloads of tourists, mostly from Shanghai, were welcomed with folk music and drawn into the traditional kolo dance by their Serbian hosts.

"They always want something unusual and this is definitely something you cannot find in agencies that have typical tours to offer," the group's Serbian guide, Ms Katarina Jovancic, said.

The women were given traditional white aprons, while the men donned boat-shaped peasant caps and were cast in their wedding roles.

Laughter erupted as they were led through a series of rural traditions, including shooting an apple, riding up a hillside in a horse-drawn carriage and bargaining a price for the bride.

The celebration wrapped up with food and drink, though some of Serbia's dairy-heavy dishes, such as the creamy cheese known as kaymak, were dropped to accommodate Chinese taste.

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 number for all of 2016.

Chinese tourists also see Serbia as a gateway to the rest of the region. For younger travellers like Mr Xin Li, 37, the Balkans offer a cheaper European experience than the pricier capitals in the West. His nine-day Balkan tour - which cost 9,980 yuan (S$1,936) excluding flights - started in Belgrade and was set to weave through western Serbia, stop off in mountainous and coastal towns in Montenegro, and wrap up in Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia.- AFP