Moving up the passport ladder | Sunday Observer

Moving up the passport ladder

According to the Annual Passport Index released last week, the top slot of the World’s Most Powerful passport this year goes to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Their citizens can gain entry to 167 countries visa free. Singapore is in second place, tied with Germany, with visa free entry to 166 countries.

The UAE has shot up the rankings of The Passport Index in recent times, having held 27th place just two years ago. This is an impressive achievement. The fact that two Asian nations hold the top positions is also significant. Singapore’s neighbour Malaysia has the eleventh most powerful passport in the world, with visa-free entry to 161 nations.

The Maldives is ranked 51, with visa-free entry to 83 nations including the UK, while India’s passport is ranked 66th, with visa free or Visa On Arrival (VOA) entry to 65 countries. How about Sri Lanka? We are languishing in the 84th spot, shared with Libya and Lebanon with visa-free entry to 45 countries, most recently to Laos.

Far ahead of Sri Lanka

Among the countries that we can go visa-free, VOA or with e-visa are India, Singapore, the Maldives, Myanmar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Nepal, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Seychelles, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Ecuador, Comoros, Ethiopia, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Timor Leste, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

This is no place for Sri Lanka to be in and indicates a systematic and dismal failure by successive Governments to negotiate with other countries for visa-free or VOA travel on behalf of Sri Lankans. To add insult to injury, some of the poorest countries in Africa including South Sudan are far ahead of Sri Lanka in the Passport Index. However, Sri Lankans who have a US Visa on their passport can travel to 30 more countries with that visa.

Our Foreign Ministers and diplomats have successfully negotiated with many countries for visa-free travel for holders of diplomatic passports, which does not serve any purpose for people-to-people contact. Sri Lanka is now a Middle Income country with a considerable percentage of the population having a good disposable income. The rise of Ultra Low Cost Carriers has made air travel affordable even for the Middle Class.

It is therefore, surprising that the authorities have not negotiated proactively at least with more Asian countries such as, Thailand, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines as well as African and South American countries, without waiting for countries to give us visa-free travel unilaterally, like Indonesia did. There are many baffling cases in this regard.

Cambodia, for example, grants VOA to practically every country except for 10 countries – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Afghanistan. Cambodia’s GDP is around US$ 22 billion, while Sri Lanka’s GDP is around US$ 87 billion. It is safe to assume that no Sri Lankan will want to overstay in Cambodia, and Sri Lanka gives the Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) facility to Cambodians. The reasons for this disparity is unknown – if for example, Sri Lankans have visa free access to Singapore, it is rather mystifying as to why many less developed countries in the region require visas from Sri Lankans.

It is true that some countries placed entry restrictions on Sri Lankans as a result of the 30-year conflict. But, the conflict ended 10 years ago. Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans have changed since then. There is a burgeoning middle class with a good disposable income who can afford to travel. They would not even dream of committing visa violations in some of the countries that require visas in advance from Sri Lankans.

However, we must also admit that these countries could be having their own reasons for demanding visas in advance from Sri Lankans instead of VOA or e-Visa. It is up to our diplomats and officials to negotiate with these countries and show that Sri Lankans deserve a relaxation of visa rules or Visa Waiver Agreements.

The UAE itself is a good example – it was 27th on the list just two years ago – they negotiated with at least 30 more countries in the meantime. They worked hard to gain more recognition for their passport. We cannot go up the passport rankings automatically – we should do a lot more work to make our passport feel more welcome around the world. We will have failed if we cannot add at least 20 more countries to the visa-free or e-visa list in the next 10 years and at least 50 more countries in the next 30 or so years.

In an ideal world, there should not be any visas at all. Everyone should be free to travel everywhere. But, there are many practical difficulties for this concept. Most developed countries fear that people from the Third World will not leave if they come to their countries. Hence, the need for a screening mechanism of applicants. This way, entry can be offered only to individuals who show the likelihood of going back to their home countries at the end of a visit. There is also a desire to keep away any undesirable elements such as criminals, drug pushers and offenders. However, sometimes even genuine travellers face rejection.

Visa-free travel

Thus, the only chance of the entire world going visa free is when all countries are equally developed. Then there will be no need to go in search of greener pastures, legally or illegally. But this is unlikely to happen for at least 100-150 years at present rates of world development. But, there is no doubt it will happen one day.

Until then, we might have to carry around passports with paper visas (note that some countries such as Australia have already done away with paper or label visas – the visa is issued electronically). But there are signs that the passports, if not visas, could be a thing of the past in a few decades, if not sooner.

The use of biometrics to identify air travellers is expanding, with the world’s largest airline launching a program that uses facial recognition technology at the Los Angeles International Airport. American Airlines has begun using facial recognition cameras on a 90-day test basis to identify passengers before they board some international flights.

The pilot program, which started this week, comes three months after the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Customs and Border Protection launched a 30-day program to test facial recognition technology for passengers flying out of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Beginning this month, Delta Air Lines plans to let international travellers use facial recognition to check in to a flight, drop off a bag, move through security screening and board a plane at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The Dubai Airport has also installed biometric gates for frequent travellers. Paper passports will not disappear immediately, but they could be gone within our lifetimes, along with restrictive visa systems.