South African passport
Cape Winelands.

The South African passport moves up by two spots in the second quarter of 2019 on the latest Henley Passport Index. South Africa, ranked 51st globally, continues to occupy 3rd place in the Sub-Saharan Africa region, following the Seychelles, ranked 28th globally (which moved down one spot), and Mauritius, ranked 31st globally. Somalia, Libya, and Eritrea sit at the bottom of the index in Africa, each only able to access 35 or fewer destinations visa-free.

In a resounding demonstration of Asia’s growing power and influence on the world stage, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea now hold joint top spot on the Henley Passport Index, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 189. These latest results consolidate 12 months of Asian dominance, after Japan first climbed to the top spot in February last year.

Following a visa-exemption from Uzbekistan, Germany currently sits alone in 2nd place, with a score of 188. Five countries now share 3rd place on the index – which is based on exclusive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – with a score of 187: Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, and Sweden. The UK and the US look increasingly unlikely to regain the top spot they jointly held in 2015, with the UK now siting in 5th place with a visa-free/visa on arrival score of 185, and the US in 6th, with a score of 184. Afghanistan and Iraq remain at the bottom of the ranking with a score of just 30, a position one or both countries have occupied throughout the index’s 14-year history.

“While Schengen Area countries have traditionally topped the index as a result of their open access to Europe, developed Asian nations have been able to secure equally high scores in recent years thanks to their strong international trade and diplomatic relations” says Amanda Smit, Managing Partner at Henley & Partners South Africa.

UAE, Albania, and China Leap Up the Ranking

The UAE continues its upward trajectory and is now just one spot away from entry into the index’s top 20. After the recent formalization of a mutual visa-waiver agreement signed with Russia, UAE passport holders are now able to access 165 destinations around the world without a prior visa. This current score marks an extraordinary ascent from the position the UAE held a decade ago, when the country shared joint 61st place with Thailand and Zimbabwe and had a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of just 52.

The UAE’s ascent is one of many success stories on the Henley Passport Index. Albania, for instance, has moved up 28 places on the index over the past ten years, with citizens of this once closed-off nation now able to access 116 destinations without a prior visa. China’s ascent is less dramatic, but it is a change that experts believe to be far more significant from a geopolitical point of view: the country now sits in 67th spot, having moved up 12 places since 2009.

Commenting on these developments, Smit says: “Aggregately, Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the poorest performing regions on the Henley Passport Index. The African continent accounts for 19 of the 27 countries whose scores have decreased over the past decade. However, although there is limited visa-free access outside of the continent, African states are increasingly strengthening their relationships with one another and deregulating internal visa regulations.”

Asian Expansion Transforming Tourism and Trade

As well as illustrating the widespread adoption of open visa policies, the latest rankings reflect the transformative effect that Asian development and growth is having on networks of transcontinental cooperation and connectivity. Dr. Parag Khanna, Founder and Managing Partner of FutureMap and author of The Future Is Asian: Global Order in the Twenty-first Century, says, “With all Asian countries topping the index, there is a clear momentum behind the region taking center stage in globalization. The steady rise of China through its visa-waiver agreements shows how incremental and reciprocal measures can lead to significant progress in trust and recognition.”

Commenting further on the impact of China’s multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the largest infrastructure project in history, Dr. Khanna says, “With the Belt and Road Initiative expanding its constellation of member states and cross-border projects, we can fully expect Asian, European, Arab, and African countries to continue to seek more seamless access to each other’s countries. This will benefit both China and all states participating in the rising trade along the new Silk Roads.”

Ryan Cummings, Director of Signal Risk, says that participation in BRI is having an increasing impact in the Middle East. Discussing the recent ratification of the visa-waiver agreement signed between UAE and Russia, Cummings says, “While touted as being a direct outcome of strengthening trade and diplomatic relations between the UAE and Russia, the move may also be a strategic attempt by the former to replicate its success as the main trading, logistics, and financial hub in the Middle East to Asia. This comes amid the UAE’s formalization of a strategic partnership with China, which included a reciprocated visa waiver agreement and which formalized its membership to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In doing so, the UAE may benefit as being the proverbial bridge linking people, trade, and commodities between Asia and the Middle East, which will only further strengthen the power of the country’s passport.”

The Brexit Effect

While growing passport strength seems inevitable for some countries, uncertainty abounds for others, as protracted Brexit negotiations continue. Last Thursday, EU leaders agreed to a request to delay the Brexit process, with a new conditional deadline set for mid-April. Although the outcome remains unknown, Prof. Dr. Florian Trauner, Research Professor at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels, points out that the process has not yet affected the UK’s standing on the Henley Passport Index. “Post-Brexit, it is likely that UK citizens will retain their (short-stay) visa free travel for the Schengen area. If the UK and EU manage to maintain a close political and trade relationship, the actual impact of Brexit on the travel freedom of British citizens may remain limited. However, the picture may change with regard to long-term mobility given that the free movement rights for UK citizens in the EU (and vice versa) will cease to apply.”

Citizenship-by-Investment Countries Retain Strong Positions

More governments than ever are embracing citizenship-by-investment programs as a means of stimulating economic development and growth, and an increasing number of wealthy and talented individuals are looking to diversify their citizenship portfolios to afford themselves and their families greater international opportunity, travel freedom, stability, and security

Smit points out that the overall passport strength of countries with citizenship-by-investment (CBI) programs is another of the index’s success stories. “Malta, for instance, currently sits in 8th spot, ahead of Australia, Iceland, and New Zealand. Montenegro, which is due to launch its CBI program in the coming months, has climbed 19 places since 2009 to 43rd place with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 124. Moldova, ranked as one of the highest historical climbers on the Henley Passport Index, jumping 21 places over the past decade, is now in 45th place with holders currently able to travel to 121 global destinations visa-free or with a visa-on-arrival” she says.

Smit maintains that she is not in the business of convincing South Africans to flee the country. “Yes, a second passport is certainly a hedge against future uncertainty, not just for the applicant but also for his or her family. But dual citizenship is far more than a mere means of escape. It can also significantly enhance the mobility of nationals travelling on visa-restricted passports, South Africans included.

“Alternative citizenship represents the most direct route to global mobility, connectivity, and access,” Smit concludes. “Individuals who have multiple passports benefit from each country’s best practices and are less vulnerable to its risks and shortcomings. The Henley Passport Index is relevant to anyone seeking to strengthen their level of international access, as well as to governments trying to understand their passport offering in a global context.”