The Relationship between Political, Economic, and Travel Freedom

Passport Power and Trade Freedom
Using historic data from the Henley Passport Index and a range of other indices, we have discovered a strongly positive correlation between visa or travel freedom, and a variety of other indicators of economic, political and human freedoms.


Trade, for instance, is closely linked to passport strength, in that countries that have more open trade tend to sign more visa-waiver agreements. At the same time, visa-free travel broadens business opportunities. International travel and personal cross-border contact are also important in establishing and deepening business relationships.


Asia-Pacific countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, and Macao are known to be the freest countries in terms of international trade. They rank very highly in terms of trade freedom, with scores above 90 out of 100. If we look at travel freedom, the Singapore passport ranks as the second most powerful, with access to 190 visa-free destinations. New Zealand is at number nine, with 183 visa-free destinations.


If we look at the countries that have the lowest trade freedom scores, and compare with their passport power, there are broadly two groups: (1) those with closed economies, and (2) those without strong institutions, mostly because of domestic civil conflicts and wars.

Passport Power and Government Integrity
Despite the important economic benefits that ‘open borders’ bring, visa waivers can also pose a potential threat for the host country, as they undercut the host government’s ability to vet the visitors through background checks. Therefore, some governments take into consideration non-economic factors before they liberalize their visa policies with other countries. For example, the European Union (EU) visa-waiver agreements include provisions related to fundamental issues such as human rights and corruption. As such, countries with strong domestic institutions and political stability are able to sign more visa-waiver agreements.


New Zealand and Singapore hold the top spots in terms of government integrity, followed by Northern European countries and the United Kingdom. They also have the strongest passports. The United Arab Emirates is also in the top 20 when it comes to both government integrity and passport power.


It is not surprising that countries which have lower passport power also have lower government integrity scores. For instance, the South African passport is ranked 56th on the Henley Passport Index and has a government integrity score of 39.7 out of 100. These results imply that governments associated with relatively high corruption have difficulties increasing their visa-free destinations, while high-functioning states are likely to have stronger passports.

Passport Power and Investment Freedom
Most countries impose a range of restrictions on investment. These could include having different rules for foreign and domestic investment; imposing restrictions on foreign exchange, payments, transfers, and capital transactions; and closing certain industries to foreign investors. The existence and the extent of these restrictions determine the investment freedom score of each country.


Looking at these results, it’s clear that there is a strong and positive correlation between visa freedom and investment freedom. Similar to trade freedom, countries that rank highly in investment freedom generally have stronger passports. For instance, European states such as Austria, Malta, and Switzerland clearly show that countries with a business-friendly environment tend to score highly when it comes to passport power.


On the other hand, countries such as Venezuela and Libya have extensive investment restrictions. Venezuela’s investment freedom score is 0; Libya’s score is just 5, out of 100. As predicted, the Libyan passport ranks near the bottom of the Henley Passport Index. However, the Venezuelan passport is still relatively strong, with access to 132 destinations visa-free. However, if the number of people being displaced from Venezuela continues to grow, it is likely that the Venezuelan passport will lose much of its power.

Passport Power and Human Freedom
While Western democracies are keen to promote human rights and democracy in other states, they are often hesitant to admit and provide access to those fleeing from persecution or share the responsibility with respect to refugee claims. Accordingly, these countries do not waive visa requirements from ‘refugee-generating’ regions. This likely explains why countries with lower human freedom scores are less likely to have strong passports.


By using the Human Freedom Index, we find a strong correlation between personal freedom and travel freedom or passport power. Personal freedom indicators take into account factors such as the rule of law, security and safety, movement, religion, association, assembly, and civil society, expression and information, identity, and relationships.


Many of these indicators depend on liberal democratic institutions. Therefore, it is not surprising that Western European countries have higher scores when it comes to personal freedom. On the other hand, the decrease in personal freedom correlates with lower visa scores. Countries that have been going through armed conflicts such as Syria, Yemen, and Iraq find themselves near the bottom of both indices. Take Syria, for instance: it ranks toward the bottom of the Henley Passport Index, and its Human Freedom score is 0 out of 10. Ultimately, it points to the reality that those most in need of human freedom tend to lack visa freedom, too.

Register to receive the digital version of each edition of the Global Citizenship Review