The New World Order

How COVID-19 is shaking up the passport index and redrawing the tourism map

Every passport is ranked according to the travel freedom it affords. Powerful passports are those that give their holders visa-free access to a maximum number of countries. Weak passports are the opposite, they give their holders very little access to visa-free travel.  

For example, in 2020, holders of a Japanese passport can visit 191 countries visa-free, according to the Henley Passport Index. By contrast, holders of an Afghanistan passport can visit only 26.

In 2020, the landscape is almost unrecognizable. The top three spots are dominated by Asian countries: Japan (191), Singapore (190) and South Korea (189).  

 

Those who have strong passports have what is becoming increasingly known as passport privilege. And it’s a privilege none of us can take for granted.  

Each year, the Henley Passport Index ranks almost 200 passports, giving travelers insight into the strength of their passport, which countries they can access with which type of visa, how it compares with others, and how it has changed over the last 14 years.  

In 2006, the year the first passport index was published, Denmark, Finland, and the United States of America were tied for first place: the holders of these passports could each visit 130 countries visa-free. In 2020, the landscape is almost unrecognizable. The top three spots are dominated by Asian countries: Japan (191), Singapore (190) and South Korea (189).  

A snapshot of current affairs

There are many factors that contribute to the strength of a passport, from diplomatic relations and agreements between countries, to a country’s political stability and economic clout.  

The passport index is a snapshot of current affairs and it – like so many other aspects of travel and life in general – has been affected by the COVID19 pandemic and especially COVID19 inspired travel restrictions.

Passports from the global north in general have been stronger than most for many years, giving citizens of these countries passport privilege they perhaps took for granted. But with the rise of Asian economies, and the mishandling of the pandemic in the U.S. and other countries, the tourism map could be redrawn.  

 

The passport rank does not take temporary travel restrictions into account, but Henley and Partners, who publish the index, said in a CNN Travel article, “This is where the juiciest details lie. Take, for example, the plummeting passport privilege of the U.S.A. 

Taking current COVID19-related travel restrictions into account, there have been some significant shakeups in passport privilege, but perhaps none as dramatic as the United States. On the 2020 Henley Passport Index, the U.S.A. is in seventh place (185 visa-free countries)but the country has lost a lot of passport privilege because of travel bans. Given the current temporary travel restrictions, the U.S. passport is now at par with Mexico (in 25th place on the index) and Uruguay (number 28th on the index) in terms of passport strength 

Since the dawn of the jet age, when global travel started to hit its stride, the U.S. passport was always seen as a “golden ticket.” Passports from the global north in general have been stronger than most for many years, giving citizens of these countries passport privilege they perhaps took for granted. But with the rise of Asian economies, and the mishandling of the pandemic in the U.S. and other countries, the tourism map could be redrawn.  

U.S. passport shrivels

The mishandling of the pandemic by the U.S.A. is a case in point. It began when the government both underestimated the seriousness of the pandemic and at the same time, on February 2, 2020, restricted non-U.S. citizens who had traveled to China in the previous two weeks from entering the U.S. Other travel restrictions followed, notably on March 13 against 26 European countries. Soaring numbers of cases (in late March, the U.S. surpassed all other nations in the reported number of people infected with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19), combined with reciprocal closures, meant that American tourists were not wanted by many countries around the globe. 

This was a significant change as tourists from the U.S. were the most important source market for Europe, Canada, Mexico, many Caribbean nations and others in the last decadeAt the time of writing, U.S. passport holders are restricted from traveling to European Union countries, Canada, Japan and numerous other nations 

“Once one of the world’s most powerful travel documents, the might of the U.S. passport has shriveled during the Covid-19 pandemic,” wrote CNN Travel.  

No one knows what the future holds, but many travelers who previously enjoyed passport privilege now have an idea of the basic inequality of tourism. This eye-opening experience may lead to changes none of us ever thought we would see, and which we can barely envision. We could, for example, see inbound and outbound tourism flows change dramatically, and new destinations arise. A new world order for tourism could very well be on the horizon.