Henley & Partners
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Henley & Partners

The Holders of the World’s Most Powerful Passports Are Making the Least of Their Travel Freedom

Dr. Juerg Steffen, CEO of Henley & Partners and author of definitive books on high-net-worth relocation to Austria and Switzerland

After two and a half years at a virtual standstill, the world is once again back on the move — or at least most of it is. The latest results from the Henley Passport Index indicate that once again, Asian passports dominate the top spots — Japan remains in 1st place with a record-high visa-free or visa-on-arrival score of 193, and Singapore and South Korea share 2nd place, each scoring 192. But despite the unmatched and unprecedented worldwide access afforded to the citizens of these three nations over the index’s 17-year history, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA) international passenger demand in the Asia-Pacific region has reached only 17% of pre-Covid levels, having hovered below 10% for most of the past two years.

This seemingly counter-intuitive figure is far behind the global trend: markets in Europe and North America have recovered to around 60% of pre-crisis travel mobility levels, as recent scenes of travel chaos at London’s Heathrow and other key international airports have demonstrated. In her essay in this report, Dr. Marie Owens Thomsen, Chief Economist at IATA, says passenger numbers should reach 83% of pre-pandemic levels in 2022, and that by next year, many markets should see traffic reach or exceed pre-pandemic levels. Dr. Thomsen expects that all markets will be back to pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

A growing divide in travel freedom

EU member states dominate the remaining top 10 spots on the Q3 Henley Passport Index ranking, as they have done throughout the index’s history. Germany and Spain are in joint-3rd place, with access to 190 destinations visa-free; Finland, Italy, and Luxembourg follow closely behind in joint-4th place with 189 destinations; and Denmark, Netherlands, and Sweden share 5th place with their passport holders able to travel to 188 destinations worldwide without a prior visa. Both the UK and the USA have dropped down a rank, to 6th and 7th place, respectively.

At the lower end of the ranking, the bleak picture presented is the same as it has been for the past decade at least: Afghanistan sits at the bottom of the index, with its citizens able to access just 27 destinations worldwide visa-free. Iraq is in the penultimate position, with a score of 28, and Syria is in third-last place, with a score of 29. There is now a record 166-destination divide between the highest- and lowest-ranking passports — a concerning figure that emphasizes the growing gap in travel freedom worldwide.

Covid restrictions relaxed

Exclusive research conducted 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 level during 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 travelers from developing nations in the Global South were 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.

Russia and Ukraine

Russian passport holders are more cut off from the rest of the world than ever before, as sanctions, travel bans, and airspace closures limit them 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 states, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the UK, and the USA, Russian citizens are effectively barred from traveling throughout most of the world, with the marked exception of Dubai and Istanbul, which have become focal transit hubs.

Conversely, the Ukrainian passport is growing from strength to strength. It currently ranks 35th on the index, with holders able to access 144 destinations around the world without needing a visa in advance. 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 European Council’s recent, ground-breaking announcement awarding Ukraine candidate status, the first step towards full EU membership, the travel freedom for Ukrainian passport holders is likely to increase further in the coming years.

Peaceful countries have more powerful passports

Unique research conducted 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 nations occupying the top 10 rankings of the Henley Passport Index can also be found in the Global Peace Index’s top 10 and the same goes for those at the bottom of the ranking.

As Stephen Klimczuk-Massion, Quondam Fellow of Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and Member of the Advisory Committee of the Andan Foundation, points out in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q3, your passport is much more than a “calling card”. It has a direct impact on the kind of welcome you will receive, where you can go, and how safe you will be when you get there. It is not just a travel document that permits you to proceed from A to B. The relative strength or weakness of your passport directly affects your quality of life 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, now in 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 was ranked 64th, 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 high-net-worth individuals globally in 2022, with a forecast net gain of 4,000 — a dramatic increase of 208% versus 2019’s net inflow of 1,300 and one of its largest on record.

Member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) continue to roll out ambitious initiatives 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 recently announced that GCC state nationals will be the first to benefit from the country’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.

The benefits of a portfolio of passports

Countries offering residence and citizenship by investment programs also continue to fare extremely well on the Henley Passport Index. Malta, for instance, has a visa-free or visa-on-arrival score of 185 and sits in 7th place on the index, while Caribbean nations such as St. Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis remain robust, with scores of 156 and 146, respectively.

After the chaotic start to the decade, the popularity of investment migration programs, many of which offer attractive real estate options, is no surprise. The benefits of a second or even third passport are self-evident for investors seeking security and peace of mind. Governments have also acknowledged the merits that investment migration offers citizens of host countries if foreign direct investment funds are adequately allocated to much-needed social and economic development initiatives.

This essay was first published in the Henley Global Mobility Report 2022 Q3.

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