Italy, U.S. Big Losers in Visa Rating

Flights to New York starting at $450; Australia from $900; $666 for two people to Paris.

With international air fares enticingly low, now would seem to be a great time for Muscovites to venture abroad. But according to a recent report from the Russian Association for Travel Agencies, there is still a major roadblock standing between many Russians and their travel plans - the not-so-little question of visas.

According to the report, which rates the consular sections of 31 foreign embassies in Moscow based on interviews with 156 of the city's biggest tour agencies, Russians with wanderlust would do best to set their sights on countries like Australia, Brazil and South Africa.

Those hoping to head to the United States or Italy, meanwhile, should prepare themselves for long lines, poor customer service and the likelihood that their visa requests will ultimately be denied. The report, conducted for RATA by the East European Institute for Social Technology and Tourism between December 1999 and February 2000, put the Moscow embassies of those two countries in 30th and 31st place, respectively.

The Italian and U.S. embassies should be "reprimanded," RATA press secretary Irina Tyurina said last week following the publication of the report.

"Disorganization" and "inconvenient facilities," Tyurina said, were the two mainstrikes against the report's main loser, Italy. The U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, came in a close second worst for neglecting to provide clear guidelines for visa acceptance or valid reasons for visa refusal.

The 31 embassies featured in the RATA survey were rated in the following categories: treatment of Russian visa applicants, organization and efficiency, comfort level of facilities, ability to provide accurate documents, satisfactory reasons for visa refusals and the number of visas issued to Russian travelers.

The consular division of the Australian Embassy won hands down.

Despite "exceptionally strict" visa-formulation requirements, the report said, the Australian Embassy received the top rating "because its employees in the consular department are democratic and good-natured, and in situations of visa refusal, they provide an official document with an explanation of the reasons, in Russian. ... These strict requirements are perceived as legitimate - and refusals are substantiated."

"For those waiting, there is a very comfortable room," the report added.

Renelle Forster, head of the Australian Embassy's consular and immigration affairs, said her department was "excited" by the ranking, and described the Australian policy as helpful to Russian travelers and immigrants alike.

"We have a global migration program, no discriminatory policies and no quotas," Forster said. "And our service standards require us to fully explain the reasons behind our decisions.

"[Russia] is a particularly difficult environment, but we've put a lot of time and effort into training our staff," Forster added.

Other Russian-friendly embassies included Brazil, South Africa, Denmark and India, which all received perfect 10 ratings.

Traditional European destinations England and France came in 21st and 22nd, respectively, with ratings of 6.52 and 6.51. Holland (4.75), Greece (4.68) and Israel (4.62), meanwhile, rounded out the bottom five.

Alexei Rogov, a travel operator for Roza Vetrov, which focuses primarily on Italian tours, described his dealings with the Italian consular division - which clocked in with the worst rating at 4.28 - as a nightmare of disorganization.

"The Italian consular department works very slowly. Tourists [with tickets] to fly out Saturday are often forced to wait until Monday, as if [the consular officials] simply didn't have time to formulate the visas," Rogov said in an interview last week with Vedomosti newspaper.

What's worse, Rogov added, the department's decisions often seem to be based on pure whimsy. "If Italy loses to France in soccer, the Italians won't let you in," he said.

But according to the report, the Italian consul general, Benedetto Laterri, has promised that the embassy - now located on Denezhny Pereulok in the embassy-dense neighborhood near Kropotkinskaya metro - will soon be moving to more convenient headquarters, with a "well-thought-out waiting hall."

The U.S. consular division earned its dart less for disorganization then for its unclear visa policies, general discrimination and large number of refusals, the RATA report concluded.

"The United States doesn't allow Russia to develop tourism in its country," said Lolita Morozov, manager of the BSI travel agency. "And no coherent rights or rules play a part in visa rejections by the U.S."

For example, Morozov said, "an unmarried woman will never get a visa [to the United States]. And, as far as tourist visas go, they almost always refuse everyone."

Even Forster at the Australian Embassy conceded that young, single Russian women are the most difficult demographic group when it comes to granting visas, since they have to prove that their intentions for requesting a tourist visa are genuine. However, she added, many such women have visited Australia and returned to Russia without incident.

Joe Kruzich, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy's consular division, declined to comment on the RATA rating.

Even short jaunts out of the country to neighboring countries are likely to prove more of a challenge to Russians in the months to come.

Although the former Eastern Bloc countries were not included in the survey, recent moves by Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to impose visa requirements on Russians - in an attempt to conform to European Union standards - will mean that international travel options may be dwindling even further.