(Henley & Partners) -- Japan and Singapore share 1st place on the latest Henley Passport Index, enjoying visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 189 destinations. Both countries gained access to Uzbekistan earlier this year, knocking Germany off the top spot and kicking the latter into 2nd place for the first time since 2013. 2018 is the first year in the index's 13-year history that either Japan or Singapore has had the most powerful passport in the world.
The rest of the top 20 on the Henley Passport Index — which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — remains fairly stable as the northern hemisphere enters the big summer holiday season, with no new visa-waivers processed for the UK and the US, who both remain in 4th place. Nationals of these countries, like nationals of most EU member states, have not seen any improvement in their global access since 2017.
South Korea shares 3rd place with six EU member states: Sweden, Finland, Italy, Spain, Denmark, and France. And Austria, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Portugal share 4th place with the US and the UK.
Russia, which opened its borders to World Cup fans this summer, has not yet gained reciprocal access to any new destinations, but it nonetheless rose one place to 46th position, benefitting from an upward climb by the Pacific island-nation of Tuvalu, which gained visa-free access to Taiwan.
The UAE has again improved and gained access to four new destinations since May, rising to 21st place globally on the Henley Passport Index and fast approaching the top 20. Despite gaining access to two new destinations, China has fallen one place to 69th on the index: improved scores for countries such as Nauru, Belarus, and Indonesia, which sit directly above China, have made it difficult for the country to ascend the ranking.
Dr. Christian H. Kälin, Group Chairman of Henley & Partners, says that a passport is much more than a simple travel document: "It is a gateway to international opportunities or a barrier to those same opportunities. The Henley Passport Index enables individuals to assess where they lie on the spectrum of global mobility and helps governments understand the relative value and power of the passports they provide."
Brexit and the EU migrant crisis create a ceiling for Europe's passport power
According to Prof. Dr. Florian Trauner, Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels, EU member states including the UK are unlikely to see their passport power improving so long as their own inbound travel policies remain restrictive.
"The current political climate in the EU is not conducive to more liberal admission policies. In the wake of the Brexit vote, the UK has been trying to install a stricter immigration regime vis-à-vis both EU and non-EU citizens," says Prof. Trauner.
"The EU, similarly, has sought to strengthen its external border control in reaction to the ongoing 'refugee crisis'. Softening visa requirements may be perceived as being lenient on immigration. In addition, EU member states have significant political reservations regarding the processing of the three remaining candidates for EU visa liberalization: Kosovo, Turkey, and Russia."
The US remains the regional leader despite Trump
The US and Canada are in the top five globally, but Latin American nations Chile, Argentina, and Brazil are not too far behind, in 13th place (Chile) and 15th place (Argentina and Brazil). These countries have jumped as many as ten places since 2008, while the US and Canada have fallen slightly over time.
Dr. Parag Khanna, Managing Partner of FutureMap, says, "It's good to see South American nations climbing the Henley Passport Index, as trade and remittances are important to their economies, so there will be positive consequences that will be felt on the ground at home with their growing mobility. The driver of the shift upwards is largely the recent rise in spending power for Brazilians, which has led to them becoming more welcome worldwide."
"As for Americans," Dr. Khanna adds, "despite Trump's strict anti-immigration stance, I don't anticipate any difficulties for American passport holders, unless countries such as Venezuela and Egypt that have been placed on Trump's travel ban list decide to implement visas for Americans, which they have not thus far done. Countries with weak economies cannot afford to close out a nationality that provides large inflows of tourists, for example. Turkey learned this lesson in 2017 when it temporarily demanded that Americans apply for visas before traveling to Turkey."
The UAE consolidates its access to the Americas and approaches the top 20
The UAE has gained access to four new destinations since Q2, all of them in the Americas region: Guyana, Canada, Brazil, and Barbados. Emiratis can now access 158 destinations worldwide and, given its current trajectory, will soon enter the global top 20 of the Henley Passport Index for the first time.
Ryan Cummings, Director of Signal Risk, says that the UAE's expansion of its Latin American and Caribbean travel links is inevitable: "The UAE's decision to focus on the Americas region is most likely an attempt by the Gulf state to merely consolidate diplomatic relations in a zone where it has already established strong economic ties."
He goes on: "By initiating visa-waiver agreements with several countries within the Americas and the Caribbean geopolitical zone, the UAE is helping its citizens access key business, cultural, and holiday hotspots with a greater degree of ease, while also positioning the Gulf country itself as a reciprocal commercial and tourism hub for nationals from the aforementioned region."
China strengthens its travel links with key investment destinations
China gained visa-free access to Belarus and visa-on-arrival access to Zimbabwe in June. Its visa-waiver agreement with the British Virgin Islands, signed on 29 June, is set to come into effect at the end of this month.
Dr. Khanna says this improved worldwide access speaks to China's broader investment strategy: "China has been successfully tying its investment strategy to its diplomatic and consular priorities, especially in developing countries and emerging markets. Given China's focus on Belarus as a node on the 'Belt and Road', this is an expected development. Meanwhile, the shift in government in Zimbabwe and other African countries signals an openness to foreign investment from all directions, including China." China is Zimbabwe's fourth largest trading partner.
According to the World Tourism Organization and the China National Tourism Association, Chinese citizens made 120 million trips — and spent USD 215 billion — abroad in 2017, which makes China the largest tourism market in the world.
But China is also increasingly committed to inbound tourism: it recently opened its Hainan province to nationals of 59 countries who cannot easily access other parts of the country.
Prof. Kate Coddington, Assistant Professor of Geography at Durham University, says this move "is expected to attract significantly increased Japanese and Russian tourism to China". More broadly, she notes, "the increasing push to 'brand' Hainan as 'China's Hawaii' through a focus on beach tourism as well as other newly authorized activities such as horse racing, sports lotteries, and duty-free shopping not only provides an incentive for Chinese tourists to keep their spending within China but also targets investment to a province suffering from budgetary issues."
Africa prioritizes foreign direct investment
In June, Ethiopia introduced a universal e-visa system for all travellers entering the country, following in the footsteps of Zimbabwe, which implemented a similar system in May.
According to Cummings, these developments reflect growing efforts on the part of new African heads of state to strengthen trade partnerships and stimulate foreign direct investment. "Key to selling the idea of reform touted by the newly inaugurated administrations of Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Ethiopia's Abiy Ahmed is publicly strengthening their ties to the international community and presenting their respective governments as adhering to international governance norms." Ethiopia in particular is easing entry requirements for foreign investors and privatizing a number of key state-owned enterprises after years of a strong nationalist agenda.
Citizenship-by-investment changes your passport power
Dr. Kälin stresses that a poor-performing passport need not constrain your potential: "Far from being something we are powerless to change, citizenship is much more flexible than many people realize. Citizenship-by-investment programs allow individuals to drastically improve the strength of their passport and, in turn, their global access."
"In participating in these programs," Dr. Kälin adds, "individuals are also able to make an exceptional economic contribution to often smaller nations that require foreign direct investment in order to support their populations and remain competitive and sustainable in the long-term. It is a mutually beneficial exchange, and it is also very much the direction in which the world is heading, as globalization becomes an undeniable feature of modern life."