Dominic Volek is Group Head of Private Clients and a Member of the Executive Committee of Henley & Partners
As we embark on a new year, the results from the latest Henley Passport Index give us an opportunity to reflect on the extraordinary upheaval that characterized 2020 and to assess how our world has been transformed. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been felt in every sphere of our day-to-day lives, forcing us to reconsider much of what we might have once taken for granted.
At the beginning of 2020, all indications were that rates of global mobility would continue to rise, that travel freedom would increase, and that holders of powerful passports would enjoy more access than ever before. The global lockdown altered this rosy picture, of course. Even the strongest passports, once seen as golden tickets to visa-free travel in much of the world, were no match for pandemic-related restrictions. As we enter 2021 with most of the world in renewed lockdowns, a sense of unpredictability reigns, but analysis of the latest results from the index allows us to step back and make some assessments about the future of travel freedom.
Without taking temporary pandemic-related restrictions into account, Japan continues to hold the number one spot on the index, with passport holders able, in theory, to access 191 destinations around the world without needing to acquire a visa in advance. This marks the third year that Japan has held the top spot, either alone or jointly with Singapore. Asian countries’ dominance of the index now seems fully established: Singapore holds 2nd spot, with access to 190 destinations, and South Korea holds onto 3rd, sharing the spot with Germany, with a visa-free/visa-on- arrival score of 189. This level of Asian dominance is a relatively new phenomenon — over the index’s 16-year history, traditionally the top spots have been held by EU countries, the UK, or the US — and it is fascinating to consider how this picture might evolve as Asian countries begin the process of recovering from the pandemic.
Similarly, with the UK and the US now facing significant challenges related to the virus, and the passport strength of both countries steadily continuing to erode, it seems clear that the balance of power has shifted. Over the past seven years, the US passport has fallen from the number one spot to 7th place, a position it shares with the UK. Due to pandemic-related travel constraints, travelers from both the UK and the US face major restrictions from over 105 countries. While the entry bans are temporary (and in constant fluctuation), this striking decline in passport power should be an eye-opener for those who considered US/UK dominance as indestructible. In the UK, Brexit will no doubt continue to influence mobility and passport strength in the coming months, if not years — a decided change in standing for a nation that held the number one spot on the index just six years ago.
...with the UK and the US facing significant challenges...it seems clear that the balance of power has shifted.
Elsewhere in the Henley Passport Index, the 27 EU member states continue to perform well, as they have throughout the ranking’s history. Finland, Italy, Luxembourg, and Spain jointly hold 4th place, with their passport holders able to access 188 destinations around the world (not taking temporary pandemic restrictions into account), while Austria and Denmark are in 5th place. EU countries occupy most of the index’s top 10 spots, enjoying unimpeded access to other countries within the bloc as well as a range of destinations around the world. Australia and New Zealand continue to fare very well, as they have through most of the index’s history, holding 8th and 7th spots, respectively. Again, looking at the relative success of the two Australasian island nations’ pandemic responses, it seems clear that passport holders from both countries will continue to enjoy unimpeded access to most of the globe once coronavirus- related restrictions begin to ease up.
Perhaps understandably, there were relatively few high-profile visa-waiver agreements between countries in 2020, which saw the rankings remain relatively stable. The notable exception to this is the UAE, which continued its remarkable upward trajectory. Despite the pandemic, the country signed a number of reciprocal agreements, including a landmark US-brokered agreement establishing formal ties with Israel, which grants Israeli and UAE citizens mutual exemption from entry visa requirements. The UAE now has a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 173 and holds 16th spot on the ranking — a stunning ascent when one considers that in 2006, the country was placed 62nd on the ranking, with a score of just 35.
No other country has scaled the index quite like the UAE has over the years, but there have been many other successes, such as the notable gains made by certain post-Soviet states. Ukraine, for instance, has extraordinarily climbed up the rankings by 22 places over the past 10 years and now sits in 41st position, with passport holders able to access 130 destinations around the world (not taking pandemic-related restrictions into account). Experts suggest that Ukraine’s ascent will continue, given the country’s strengthening bilateral trade relations with China, which will have implications for its relations with other countries involved in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Looking towards the lowest rankings of the index, it is unsurprising that even the upheaval caused by a global pandemic has had no discernible effect on the passport strength of the countries that take up the bottom spots. As it has for much of the index’s history, Afghanistan is placed last, with a ranking of 110 and a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of just 26. Iraq and Syria hold the 109th and 108th spots, respectively. Given these countries’ lack of access to public health resources and the unlikelihood of their ability to distribute a vaccine widely, it would appear that their citizens will be faced with a growing number of obstacles when it comes to travel and mobility in the year to come.
As always, the results from the Henley Passport Index provide us with an illuminating snapshot of the world and how — depending on which travel documents we hold — we are able to move around it or are confined to immobility, starkly highlighting the growing gap in travel freedom, and forcing us to consider how an increasingly unpredictable array of forces will widen that gap in future.