Russia is the world's biggest country, combining natural majesty with cultural miracles. Yet only 85,000 British people go there in a typical year. (For comparison, that is just 60 hours' worth of UK tourism to Spain.) The reason: the complex and expensive procedure for obtaining a Russian visa.
State Communism collapsed 20 years ago, yet red tape is as tangled as ever. As a result, Russia receives no more visitors each year than two of the tiniest former Soviet republics, Estonia and Latvia, combined. With a little help from our man in Tallinn, these Baltic nations abandoned visas almost as soon as their new flags of independence were hoisted.
The same pattern is repeated across the world. Tourists naturally take the path of least resistance, which is why Thailand receives far more British visitors than does India. Ukraine has thrived since it abandoned the ludicrous demand that prospective tourists take postal orders to its consulate in west London in order to obtain a precious passport stamp.
Officials in Moscow and Delhi will argue that they are simply applying the principle of reciprocity: Britain expects Russians and Indians to jump a series of hurdles before they can stay in the West End or shop at Bicester Village. Certainly, these rules should be eased – in the interests of the UK's tourist economy, as well as international understanding. But strict reciprocity breeds mutual contempt, which is why pragmatic nations such as Turkey sell visa stamps for £10 to arriving Brits with no form-filling whatsoever.
Xenophobia, in most aspectsof life, is thankfully declining. But a suspicion of foreignersis still alive and kicking, and keeping prospective touristsout of Britain, Europe and the wider world. In travel, the only useful Visa is the logo on a piece of plastic – and even then you have a choice, with many other international payment methods available.