Trends in Travel Freedom: Insights from the Henley Passport Index

Despite a year in which the world has witnessed an upsurge in populist and nationalist movements, the story told by the Henley Passport Index is one that speaks overwhelmingly of increased visa liberalization and travel freedom for the world as a whole. The growth in global travel freedom has been far from equally distributed, however.

Originally invented in 2004 by Dr. Christian Kälin, who designed the first ranking of all the world’s countries according to how many destinations their citizens can travel to visa-free, the Henley Passport Index is the original, authoritative, and most widely used index of its kind.

In the first quarter of 2018, Germany lost the top spot on the index for the first time in six years, as Japan and Singapore took over in joint 1st place. Significantly, this was not just a breakthrough for Japan and Singapore, but also highly emblematic of the increasing passport power of the Asian continent as a whole. As a number of commentators have pointed out, the rise of Asian nations on the Henley Passport Index is long overdue, with Japan and Singapore blazing the trail for other peaceful commercial powers in the region (such as South Korea).

LEFT: The number of European versus Asian countries in the top 3 of the Henley Passport Index. RIGHT: The ranking of the Emirati passport on the Henley Passport Index over time

China performed well in the second quarter, gaining access to the UAE, Oman, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which boosted its overall position on the ranking. As part of China’s effort to boost inbound tourism, the government also liberalized visa access to its Hainan province for passport holders from 59 countries — an unprecedented move for this historically closed-off nation.

In the third quarter, EU nations became conspicuous by their lack of activity in the visa-waiver sphere. According to scholars who commented on this trend, the stasis of EU nations on the Henley Passport Index in 2018 can be attributed to the current political climate in the region, with a growing anti-immigration sentiment peppering the debates taking place in many EU member states.

Elsewhere, the US remained the regional leader in terms of passport power but failed to make any gains compared to 2017. It seems increasingly unlikely that either the US or the UK will regain the number 1 spot they jointly held in 2015.

By the fourth quarter, Japan had overtaken Singapore to become the most powerful passport in the world, boasting visa-free access to a record-high 190 countries. The UAE claimed the top spot in the Middle East region for the first time in the index’s history, after signing an unprecedented visa-waiver with Russia. The UAE has made a stunning ascent since the index’s inception, from 62nd place in 2006 to 21st place worldwide at the end of 2018.

Generally, movements on the Henley Passport Index in 2018 point to a strong desire on the part of countries in the Middle East to reduce their dependency on the hydrocarbon sector — and a corresponding willingness among other nations to attract Middle Eastern investment and solidify bilateral trade and tourism.

As we push into 2019, the trends from 2018 look set to continue. In the Q1 2019 ranking, Japan sits in 1st place, while Singapore and South Korea share 2nd place. South Korea holds this position for the first time, overtaking both France and Germany. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have each moved four places up the ranking compared to the beginning of 2018, in another demonstration of Asian passport power. Iraq and Afghanistan continue to hold the bottom spot on the index, each offering their citizens visa-free access to only 30 destinations worldwide.

Neither the US nor EU member states are forecast to revise their current closed-door policy, while countries in other parts of Europe (such as citizenship-by-investment newcomers Moldova and Montenegro) as well as those in Asia and the Middle East will most likely continue seeking visa-waiver agreements with strategic diplomatic allies, in line with their more proactive foreign affairs approach. The US and the UK have slid down the ranking from 5th to 6th place this year.

A final word ought to be added concerning the great unknown that is Brexit. Until a final deal is hammered out, it is difficult to know what exactly the ramifications will be for EU–UK travel, although, as it stands, it seems that visa-free arrangements will remain in place. And with Kosovo waiting in the wings for visa liberalization with the EU, the year ahead is bound to contain its fair share of surprises in the travel freedom space.

The rise of Asian nations on the Henley Passport Index is long overdue, with Japan and Singapore blazing the trail for other peaceful commercial powers in the region.

Methodology

The Henley Passport Index and its contents are based on data provided by the International Air Transport Authority (IATA) and supplemented, enhanced, and updated using extensive in-house research.

On a fixed date each year, Henley & Partners receives exclusive data from IATA, which forms the basis of the Henley Passport Index. In order to maintain the accuracy of the data provided by IATA in the face of constant updates to visa policy, and in order to create detailed visa lists for all 199 passports in our database, the Henley & Partners research team uses publicly available and reliable online sources to cross-check each passport against all 227 possible travel destinations. This research process is ongoing throughout the year. It is coupled with a rigorous monitoring system to pick up relevant visa-policy shifts and to ensure that the index remains ‘live’.

For each travel destination, if no visa is required for passport holders from a country or territory, then a score with value = 1 is created for that passport. A score with value = 1 is also applied if passport holders can obtain a visa on arrival, a visitor’s permit, or an electronic travel authority (ETA) when entering the destination. These visa types require no pre-departure government approval, because of the specific visa-waiver programs in place.

Where a visa is required, or where a passport holder has to obtain a government-approved electronic visa (e-visa) before departure, a score with value = 0 is assigned. A score with value = 0 is also assigned if passport holders need pre-departure government approval for a visa on arrival — a scenario that we do not consider ‘visa-free’.

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