Bus Tours to Britain Canceled

Russia's largest operator of bus tours to Europe has canceled all its tours to Britain after 21 out of 39 people on a tour had their visa applications refused in Moscow, the Russian Tour Industry Union said Friday.

Turtrans-Voyazh canceled a tour that was due to leave April 27 after more than half the group was refused visas, said Irina Tyurina, a spokeswoman for the tour industry union. One person had traveled from Novosibirsk to give fingerprints as part of the application procedure.

Turtrans-Voyazh is the largest bus tour operator in Russia, carrying out around 40 percent of such tours, Tyurina said.

She put the visa problems down to discrimination against bus tours, which are seen as more likely to attract illegal immigrants. "There exists a stereotype on the Russian market that they are cheaper," she said.

A spokeswoman for the British Embassy in Moscow said she had heard of the Turtrans-Voyazh case. "We are trying to investigate this case at the moment. We don't have any official comment," she said.

There have been no changes to the pattern of visa refusals, she said. "The operations are going as usual, nothing has changed."

The travelers affected had all paid around 1,200 euros for an all-inclusive 15-day tour and had already received Schengen visas for the other countries visited, said Ivan Balanovsky, the head of the visa section at Turtrans-Voyazh.

The reason for most of the visa applications being turned down was given as the "unclear origin of the money in people's bank accounts," Balanovsky said. Travelers have to provide bank statements as part of their application.

Two tours planned for June have been canceled, Balanovsky said.

"Our management made the decision that for the moment we will not be doing tours to Britain until relations improve between our governments," Balanovsky said.

The directors of several other tour agencies said that they had cut down or canceled tours to Britain due to visa refusals and the complex application procedure.

Tatyana Kozlovskaya, the general director of Inters tour agency, said her agency had not run any tours to Britain since May 2007, when around 40 percent of travelers in several groups were refused visas or received them too late to travel. The agency now advises travelers to choose France or Italy instead, she said.

Yelena Popova, the general director of Stary Gorod agency, said her agency also experienced visa refusals, although "not like in Turtrans-Voyazh, not half the group." On average, out of 100 travelers to Britain around 25 eventually cancel, either because of visa refusals or because they don't want to deal with this "absolutely humiliating system," she said.

In the latest group, two elderly women planned to travel together, but only one received a visa, even though both had several Schengen visas in their passports, Popova said. The agency is not planning another tour to Britain until September, although last year it sent 50 people every 10 days.

Olga Sanayeva, the general director of Ankor tour agency, said the agency had organized tours to Britain since 1996 but is now planning to wind up the program both because of visa refusals and the "humiliating" application procedure.

"Unfortunately it looks as if we will remove those tours. We can't go on torturing people like this," Sanayeva said.