Deck stacked against female Russian tourists

  • 2002-07-18
  • Viktoria Loginova

Being young and attractive is a serious handicap for Russian women wishing to spend their holidays in Europe as an increasingly harsh European Union visa regime forces Russian vacationers to look elsewhere.

"Being a young and pretty woman is a disaster if you like to travel," said Natalya Ostrovskaya, an official with the Russian tourist information agency Banko.

"In fact, we advise our female clients to give the ugliest photos they can find of themselves to consulate officials in order to enhance their chances of obtaining a visa," she said.

As a result of the difficulties Russians are experiencing of breaking through the EU's bureaucratic curtain, tourism to Turkey has been booming.

Last year some 625,000 Russians opted to spend their holidays in Turkey, compared with 221,000 in Spain, 115,000 in Italy and 75,000 in France, official figures show.

Compared to the obstacle course presented to Russians in European consulates in Moscow, where every possible discouragement is put in the way of would-be visitors, Turkey rolls out the red carpet by allowing them to buy entry visas directly at the border for a mere $10.

Although they attract the highest number of Russian tourists within the EU due to the high number of applications, the toughest countries to get into are Spain and Italy, Banko officials said.

Nadia, a 25 year-old designer who originally planned to spend her June holiday on Spain's Costa Brava but finally had to settle for Turkey, agreed.

"They asked me to bring a document proving that I earn in excess of 700 dollars a month, and another attesting that I had bought dollars here that I would spend in Spain," she said.

"What it really amounted to was that I had to prove I was not going there to be a prostitute. It was so humiliating," she complained.

Although she complied with all Spanish consular requirements and had all her documents in order, Nadia was eventually denied a visa.

Alvaro Alonso, an official with the Spanish Consulate's tourist office, admitted that their demands could scare visitors off, but insisted that the precautions were justified.

"Every day we see tourists who enter Spain and never return. It's natural we should ask for these documents," he said.

Two categories of applicants are particularly likely to be turned down at EU consulates, Ostrovs-kaya noted.

The first is young women, owing to EU countries' fear of letting in Russian prostitutes.

The second category is that group of Russians who originate in the Caucasus region.

"People with a Caucasian-sounding name or who were born in Chechnya or other Caucasus regions face a much higher risk of being rejected," Ostrovskaya said.

Many Russians, even those who finally succeed in obtaining a visa, feel humiliated by what they perceive as blatant discrimination.

"More and more I feel like a second-class citizen when I travel to Europe," said Dmitri Danilov, 35.

He recalled the difficulties he experienced in visiting Venice from nearby Croatia where he was vacationing.

"While I was in Croatia, a local travel agency sold me a one-day tour of Venice, for which it said I did not need a visa. However, as soon as we reached the city, Italian officials confiscated all the Russians' passports, and we had to visit it with only photocopies of our documents," he said.

Ostrovskaya predicted that the Turkish tourist boom would continue for as long as the present EU visa policy prevailed.