Covid shakes up global passport powers

Business travel freedom upended with Singapore and US passports suffering reduced visa-free access.

Prior to Covid-19, Singaporean passport holders could access 190 visa-free destinations. This number has dropped to 68.
Prior to Covid-19, Singaporean passport holders could access 190 visa-free destinations. This number has dropped to 68. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Standart

Covid-19 has caused a dramatic upset to the world's most powerful passports — and business travel freedom — as border lockdowns continue to shake the global mobility hierarchy.

Singaporeans, for instance, enjoyed visa-free access to an unprecedented 190 destinations worldwide in January 2020, earning the envied red passport the second spot on the Henley Passport Index — a ranking of the world's passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa.

This number has since dropped to 68, impeding business travel plans, even as the country slowly eases reopens its borders to selected groups and destinations.

Prior to Covid-19, the US passport ranked sixth on the index, with Americans freely entering 185 destinations worldwide. This number has since dropped. With political tensions, criticisms over the government's response of Covid-19 and the hotly-debated presidential elections, the steady decline of the US passport might also be an indication of its lowered status in the eyes of the international community.

Lower down the index, Russian citizens can now travel to 58 destinations as opposed to the original 119, while Indian passport holders may currently access fewer than 20 destinations from an original 61.

This general global decline in accessibility is decidedly more apparent for wealthier democratic countries such the UK, the US, and Western European nations, whose citizens have taken travel freedom for granted, said Christian Kaelin, chairman of Henley & Partners and inventor of the passport index concept.

"The pandemic has abruptly changed this, and there's been a shift away from travel freedom being regarded as the prerogative of nationals with once-powerful passports, towards a realisation that it is now a necessary luxury for those wishing to access first-class education, business opportunities, and quality healthcare for themselves and their families."

Should international travel resume without the various pandemic-related travel bans and restrictions in place, Japan continues to take the top spot on the Henley Passport Index, with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191.

Singapore remains in second place with a score of 190, while Germany and South Korea are tied at third place with a score of 189. Overall however, EU member stats continue to take the most spots in the index's top 10 listing.

This story was first published in Travel Weekly Asia.