Inside Travel: Visas from Russia with luck

Just seen a cheap, last-minute airfare advertised for Moscow or St Petersburg? Fancy a bit of impromptu driving in the Russian outback?

Just seen a cheap, last-minute airfare advertised for Moscow or St Petersburg? Fancy a bit of impromptu driving in the Russian outback? Stopping off, maybe, at some of those more obscure places that nobody ever seems to go to?

Good idea. Apart, that is, from the fact that you'll need a tourist visa. Which is where the obstacles begin to arise. Because before you risk spending all that money on your ticket, you'll have to find an organisation (a hotel, say, or a tour operator) inside the country that can sponsor your presence there. And to get this so-called "visa-support", you'll need to book and pay for your accommodation ­ for every night ­ in advance.

To get that tourist visa you'll now need to take the evidence of your confirmed bookings to the Consulate in Notting Hill, west London, and probably stand in a long queue (unless you can get there by 9am sharp, on a day which isn't a Wednesday or a holiday in Russia).

By which time, that last-minute flight will probably have sold out long ago. And anyway, you'll still have another five days to wait before you can collect your visa. Well, either that, or pay some exorbitant amount, upwards of £100, to have it issued on the same day.

So you'll probably go to Istanbul instead, and Russia will lose another tourist.

How do you get round the rules? Can you travel independently in Russia without sticking to a pre-planned itinerary, and if so, how?

I recently went to some lengths to find out if it could be done (experiencing nearly three months of Siberian winter in the process), and am pleased to report that independent travel in Russia is ­ just about ­ beginning to take off.

Whichever way you plan to go, you'll still need to get your "visa support", and to take this to your local Russian consulate. But the good news is that this visa support is getting easier to obtain. Evidence of confirmed bookings is not required. I found a Moscow travel agency over the internet offering visa support for $70 (less than £50), which I paid by credit card. This agency obtained official approval from the relevant government ministry, and telexed it to the Russian Consulate in London. To my amazement, I was promptly issued with a three-month visa valid for the entire country.

The key was to have applied for a "business" visa. Tourist visas require evidence of prior bookings. Business visas (which can last up to a year) do not.

What you will want to know is whether this is illegal. Is pretending to be a businessman or woman a crime in Russia? Are you liable to be fined or arrested upon entry into the country? According to people like Neil McGowan, a Moscow resident and founder of specialist tour company The Russia Experience, these business visas are indeed of dubious legality.

"The agencies tell the ministry that they have taken care of your accommodation and travel for the duration of your stay, which they have not," he told me. "I've known people chucked out for using fake paperwork, though normally the application is blocked at the visa-issue stage. The comeback is more serious for the issuing company than for the recipient."

But according to an organisation called Visa to Russia (020 7229 1412), based in London, which specialises in issuing visa-support to travellers (for large fees), the Russians themselves don't know if it is illegal or not.

The important thing, the company explained, is that you can be construed as a potential businessman or woman. That is to say, in travelling through the country (even as a tourist), you are effectively, if unwittingly, scouring Russia for business opportunities. Other companies issuing "visa support" from inside Russia told me that the limit of their responsibility was to be liable for any trouble that the travellers (whom they had sponsored) might cause while in the country.

In my case, at no time during the visa application process or during my stay, did anyone ask me the nature of my "business" in Russia. While there I bought my own train tickets, booked my own flights, turned up unannounced at hotels, even rented a flat ­ in short, I did all the things that travellers or tourists might do in any normal country in the world.

Which is not to say Russia is or will be a "normal" country for tourism any time soon. Travellers in most out-of-the-way cities are still rarer than rhododendrons. In many ways it is hard to think of a less tourist-friendly country: for towns other than Moscow and St Petersburg (which are easy to visit on packages), I found guidebooks were inadequate, local information was impossible to come by and very little English was spoken. Hotels could be of abysmal value, flight schedules were sparse, and the food in restaurants across much of the country was revolting.

But set these off against the thrill of being among the first to travel independently in the world's largest and least-explored country, and you will find they are pretty minor inconveniences.

All visitors to Russia require a visa. If booking a package through an operator, you are strongly advised to leave visa formalities with them to deal with. Travelling independently, "visa support" is required from an organisation inside Russia. Jeremy Atiyah used the Maria Agency ( maritour@online.ru) based in Moscow. He paid US$70 for "support" for a three-month double-entry business visa. After your visa support has been sent from Russia to the Consulate in London, you can apply in person at 5 Kensington Palace Gardens, London W8 4QX. Two photos, a completed application form and £30 is required for five-day processing.

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