Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Nice advertisement - shame about the glacial reception
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The Independent Travel

"Be inspired!" instructs the slogan stamped on an implausible image of a couple skipping hand-in-hand through a field strewn with wild flowers. Hang on: where are they going? In the direction of St Basil's Cathedral: conveniently and surgically removed from its urban constraints in Moscow's Red Square.

You can tell the world has changed when the Russian government decides to come in from the cold and change its Arctic attitude towards tourists. The world's biggest country is now targeting the richest travel market in Europe, by advertising on the back of London buses.

For most of the past 80 years, the face that Russia has presented to prospective travellers has borne a close resemblance to the sullen expression shared by immigration officials at Sheremetyevo airport - whose general unhappiness, you sense, is heightened when they cannot find grounds for rejecting your request to enter the country.

Fifteen years ago, when the Soviet Union deflated quicker than an inner tube manufactured in Minsk, I looked forward to an untangling of the red tape that dogged every journey east. Little did I know, that bureaucrats in Moscow were devising fiendish new rules for visitors that were even more complicated than under communism. As a result, tourism numbers to Russia have fallen even though global levels have gone through the roof. You have to expend a ridiculous amount of time, energy and money in the tangled business of procuring a Russian visa.

"The Russian Army were coached by German generals in the Napoleonic Wars, which is how the goose step became the unlikely ceremonial march of the Red Army - presumably because it's easier to shoot yourself in the foot," speculates Neil McGowan, who runs The Russia Experience.

"The sooner visa requirements are eased, the better. Of course, Russians would like to be able to travel more easily too, and the Brits place still more hoops for Russians to jump through for visas.

For those prepared to tolerate the absurd visa process, though, Mr McGowan says the city has never been more tourist-friendly: "Hundreds of super restaurants, bars and clubs, museums coming out of mothballs in newly-redecorated glory - and you should rush to catch the last vestiges of Soviet grot, because their unique charm ebbs away almost hourly."

Neil Taylor, meanwhile, who pioneered organised tourism everywhere from Cuba to China, has uncovered one Russian border post where you need not get a visa in advance: Kaliningrad, Russia's exclave on the Baltic. "You can, by prearrangement only of course, get a visa on the border. The aim of this convolution is to allow entry to German tour groups eager to see what remains of Königsberg, a task that can be easily accomplished within two days, (cynics might say within two hours)." The visa-free rule applies only for two nights and only from Poland, not from Lithuania.

Mr Taylor plans to test the concession for himself next month. I hope he has a more meaningful brief Russian experience than that enjoyed by Athena Ally in 1989. As the Eastern Bloc crumbled, she joined an overnight tour to the Russian capital. A visit of under 24 hours circumvented the need for a visa. But it was not long enough for Ms Ally to comprehend the USSR's brand of make-believe.

"We changed money into roubles when we arrived from Gatwick, and spent the rest of the time trying unsuccessfully to offload them. We went to a fancy hotel (a relative term in those days) and ordered cocktails. The waiter demanded payment in dollars, but we had only roubles. So he made us watch while he poured the drinks away."

On the bus back to the airport, the party were instructed to jettison any local currency. "We were told we couldn't take roubles out of the country. So we left them on the bus." Her tale echoes the apocryphal Irish mystery coach tour in which everyone on board entered a sweepstake about their destination.

The driver won.

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