The group of four friends from Latvia had driven 26 hours in a camper van to reach San Marino, where they became the first visitors to take advantage of the microstate’s Sputnik V Covid vaccine holiday package.
One person in the group, Armens, 48, was so happy to receive the Russian jab – available to non-residents who book accommodation in San Marino hotels – that he kept the empty vial as a souvenir after receiving his first dose on Tuesday.
They made the trip to San Marino, an independent state landlocked within central Italy, despite their home country offering the EU-approved Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson Covid vaccines.
“We trust the Russian vaccine,” said Artjoms, 29, another of the four. “And so when we heard the news about San Marino, we booked straight away.”
They will drive back to Latvia before returning to San Marino for their second vaccine dose in three weeks.
All of San Marino’s population of about 34,000 have either been fully or partially vaccinated against Covid-19, with the vast majority receiving Sputnik V, which has not yet been approved by the EU.
The republic, which is not an EU member, signed a deal with Russia in February after doses of other vaccines it had been expecting to receive from Italy via the bloc’s procurement programme did not arrive.
In an attempt to boost tourism, San Marino started its vaccine holiday deal on Sunday. Visitors must book a three-night stay in one of the 19 hotels taking part in the deal, before booking an additional three nights within three or four weeks to get the second dose. The cost of both jabs is €50.
The initiative is open only to those coming from countries that Italy has opened up to for tourism.
Once the visitor has booked accommodation, the hotel owner arranges the vaccine appointment with the local health authority.
“After the first dose, they can stay on or return to their home country before coming back, or spend some time in Italy … obviously if they stay in Italy then they need to respect the Covid rules there,” said Roberto Ciavatta, San Marino’s health minister.
Sixteen tourists from countries including Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Armenia, Argentina, the US and the UAE are booked in for their first Sputnik jab on Friday, and another 21 are scheduled for Monday.
San Marino has received more than 150 emails from people all over the world inquiring about the holiday package.
“Even from countries where the vaccination programme is advanced, people consider Sputnik to be a good vaccine,” said Ciavatta. “We have found it to be very effective. We no longer have infections or hospitalisations and are currently in a situation of extreme serenity.”
Artjoms and his friends have been making the most of their short stay in the medieval enclave surrounded by Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “We went to the castle in the old town, from where we could see all the views. Plus, we like it because it’s tax-free and so everything is cheap. So it’s a really good place for us.”