Passport holders with the greatest global access are currently the most restricted and reluctant to enjoy their travel freedom.
This is according to the latest results from the Henley Passport Index, which is based on exclusive and official data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Japan holds the number one spot on the index – the original ranking of all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa – with a record-high visa-free or visa-on-arrival score of 193, while Singapore and South Korea come in joint-second place, with a score of 192.
But, despite the unmatched and unprecedented worldwide access afforded to the citizens of these three nations over the index’s 17-year history, international passenger demand in the Asia-Pacific region has only reached 17% of pre-Covid levels, according to IATA’s latest statistics, having hovered below 10% for most of the past two years.
This figure is far behind the global trend where markets in Europe and North America have recovered to around 60% of pre-crisis travel mobility levels.
Commenting in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q3, Dr Marie Owens Thomsen, chief economist at IATA, says passenger numbers should reach 83% of pre-pandemic levels in 2022. “By next year, many markets should see traffic reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels, while we expect this to be the case for the industry as a whole in 2024.”
EU member states dominate the rest of the top ten spots on the latest ranking, with Germany and Spain in joint-third place, with access to 190 destinations visa-free. Finland, Italy, and Luxembourg follow closely behind in joint-fourth place with 189 destinations, and Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden share fifth place with their passport holders able to travel to 188 destinations worldwide without a visa. Both the UK and US have dropped down a rank, to sixth and seventh place, respectively, and Afghanistan remains at the bottom of the index, with its nationals only able to access 27 destinations worldwide visa-free.
Summer travel chaos
As US travel chaos begins to ease following the Fourth of July holiday weekend, strikes and staff shortages are forcing airlines across Europe to cancel thousands of flights, causing hours-long queues at major airports. Heathrow Airport has even told airlines to stop selling summer tickets as the UK’s biggest airport struggles to cope with the rebound in air travel.
Dr Christian H. Kaelin, Chairman of Henley & Partners and the inventor of the passport index concept, says the recent surge in demand is hardly surprising.
“The latest results from the Henley Passport Index are a heartening reminder of the very human desire for global connectivity even as some countries move toward isolationism and autarky. The shock of the pandemic was unlike anything seen in our lifetimes, and the recovery and reclamation of our travel freedoms, and our innate instinct to move and migrate will take time.”
Research by Henley & Partners reveals that top-ranking passports have bounced back almost to pre-pandemic levels in terms of access. By comparing the current level of travel freedom with the most severe Covid-related restrictions imposed over the past few years, the results show that UK and US passport holders now have unrestricted access to 158 destinations around the world (as opposed to just 74 and 56 destinations, respectively, at the height of the pandemic in 2020), while Japanese passport holders enjoy unrestricted access to 161 destinations (as opposed to only 76 in 2020).
After months of what was described as “travel apartheid”, where travel from developing nations in the Global South was effectively blocked while citizens of wealthier countries in the Global North were making marked gains in travel freedom, lower-ranking passports are also beginning to recover. Indian passport holders now have roughly the same travel freedom as they did pre-pandemic, with unrestricted access to 57 destinations around the world (as opposed just 23 destinations in 2020). Similarly, while restricted to just 46 destinations at the height of the Omicron wave in 2021, South African passport holders now have unrestricted access to 95 destinations around the world, which is close to their pre-pandemic passport score of 105.
Chris Dix of VFS Global says visa application volumes between January and May this year grew by more than 100% compared to the same period last year. “With the opening of international borders, easing of travel restrictions, and the resumption of regular international flights, the industry is currently witnessing peak ‘revenge travel’. For example, in India, visa applications are averaging more than 20,000 per day as we head into the July–August holiday season.
“These numbers include travelers visiting Canada, Europe, and the UK, along with other popular destinations. We are also expecting an extended summer travel season this year with planned international trips stretching right through to September.”
Russia increasingly isolated
Russian passport holders are more cut off from the rest of the world than ever before, as sanctions, travel bans, and airspace closures limit Russian citizens from accessing all but a few destinations in Asia and the Middle East. The Russian passport currently sits at 50th place on the index, with a visa-free or visa-free on arrival score of 119.
However, due to airspace closures in EU member nations, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the US, and the UK, Russian citizens are effectively barred from traveling throughout most of the developed world, with the marked exceptions of Istanbul and Dubai, which have become focal points.
The Ukrainian passport is currently ranked in 35th place on the index, with holders able to access 144 destinations around the world without needing a visa in advance. In contrast to the stringent restrictions placed on Russian passport holders, Ukrainians displaced by the invasion have been granted the right to live and work in the EU for up to three years under an emergency plan in response to what has become Europe’s biggest refugee crisis this century. After the EU’s recent, ground-breaking announcement awarding Ukraine candidate status, the first step towards EU membership, the travel freedom for Ukrainian passport holders is likely to increase further in the coming years.
Commenting in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q3, Professor Dr Khalid Koser OBE, member of the governing board of the Andan Foundation, says at least 5-million Ukrainians have left their country, and a further 7-million or so are displaced internally.
“In a global – not just European – context, these are very significant numbers, making Ukrainians one of the largest refugee populations in the world, along with Syrians, Venezuelans, and Afghans.”
Peaceful countries have more powerful passports
Research by Henley & Partners comparing a country’s visa-free access with its Global Peace Index score shows a strong correlation between a nation’s passport power and its peacefulness. All of the nation’s sitting in the top ten of the Henley Passport Index can also be found in the top 10 of the Global Peace Index. Likewise, for the bottom ranking nations.
Stephen Klimczuk-Massion, fellow at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Member of the Advisory Committee of the Andan Foundation, says “it’s an understatement to say that we are living through a particularly turbulent time worldwide, with the pandemic still casting a long shadow and newer developments such as war, inflation, political instability and incidents of violence increasingly dominating the headlines.
“In this context, a passport is more than ever a calling card, which, depending on which passport you carry and where you are going, will have an impact on the kind of welcome you will receive, where you can go and how safe you will be when you get there. Now more than ever, it’s a mistake to think of a passport as merely a travel document that allows you to get from A to B. The relative strength or weakness of a particular national passport directly affects the quality of life for the passport holder and may even be a matter of life and death in some circumstances.”
The UAE is the pandemic winner
Throughout the turmoil of the past two years, one thing has remained constant: the growing strength of the UAE passport, which now sits at 15th place on the ranking, with a visa-free or visa-on-arrival score of 176. Over the past decade, the country has made unparalleled gains as the biggest climber on the index – in 2012, it sat at 64th place on the rankings, with a score of just 106.
As the latest Henley Private Wealth Migration Dashboard demonstrates, the UAE has also become the focus of intense interest among affluent investors and is expected to see the highest net influx of HNWIs globally in 2022, with a forecast net increase of 4 000 – a dramatic increase of 208% versus 2019’s net inflow of 1 300 and one of its largest on record.
Dr Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute and member of the advisory committee of Henley & Partners, says member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) continue to roll out ambitious initiatives and schemes to attract high-net-worth individuals and skilled expatriate professionals.
“These investment migration efforts and new labor market policies reflect part of a broader strategy to position GCC countries as hubs for global capital and talent. The visa requirements for GCC citizens visiting major travel and commercial hubs are likewise being eased. The UK announced that GCC state nationals will be the first to benefit from the UK’s new electronic travel authorization scheme beginning in 2023, ensuring that these visitors can enjoy visa-free travel across the UK. Both the UAE and Oman have signed sovereign investment partnerships with the UK.”