Giving value to the Sri Lankan passport | Sunday Observer

Giving value to the Sri Lankan passport

6 August, 2023

Henley and Partners recently released their annual Passport Index, which analyses the strength of passports of various countries on the basis of the availability of a visa-free or Visa On Arrival (VOA) facility in other countries. The Henley Passport Index is the authoritative ranking of all the world’s passports and is based on extensive data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the largest, most accurate travel information database. This year, Singapore topped the Index with visa-free or VOA access to 192 countries, (out of 227 countries and territories) displacing the previous title holder Japan.

At the other end of the scale, Afghanistan remains at the bottom of the Index, with a visa-free access score of just 27 countries, followed by Iraq (29), and Syria (30) - the three weakest passports in the world. The general trend over the history of the 18-year-old ranking has been towards greater travel freedom, with the average number of destinations travellers are able to access visa-free nearly doubling from 58 in 2006 to 109 in 2023. However, the global mobility gap between those at the top and bottom of the index is now wider than it has ever been, with top-ranked Singapore able to access 165 more destinations visa-free than bottom-ranked Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka ranks at 96 on the list this year, an improvement from 2022 when it was ranked 103rd. Those holding Sri Lankan passports can travel visa free, VOA or on ETA (Electronic Travel Authority) to 41 countries out of 227. Neighbouring India has access to 57 countries visa-free, Nepal 38, Bhutan 58, Pakistan 33 and Bangladesh 41. In South Asia, Maldives is placed 59th in the ranking, with visa-free access to an astonishing 91 destinations including the UK and Ireland. It is rather regrettable that even 75 years after Independence, Sri Lankan passport holders can only travel to 41 other countries visa-free. Rather embarrassingly, we have to obtain visas even to visit several SAARC countries and some of the poorest countries in Africa including South Sudan are ahead of Sri Lanka in the Passport Index.

Of course, this picture changes if one has access to a diplomatic or official passport - they can travel freely to countries such as Thailand to which ordinary travellers cannot travel without a prior visa. It is unfortunate that ordinary travellers have to go through a tedious visa process even to go to some Asian countries with which we have been maintaining religious and cultural links for centuries. It is difficult to think that Sri Lanka will get visa-free or even E-visa access to most Western countries, as there is a possibility that those who visit these countries might not return due to the economic advantages of living in those countries. Hence the strict visa process of these countries. Sri Lanka will have to reach upper income status to be considered for visa waivers by these countries. However, there are plenty of other countries in Asia, Africa and South America which still require visas from Sri Lankans, despite some of them being economically on par with or even worse off than Sri Lanka. No Sri Lankan will surely stay back in those countries. It is with these countries that our Foreign Ministry and diplomats should negotiate for visa-free travel for all passport holders.

Notwithstanding the economic crisis, Sri Lanka has a considerable population with a good disposable income. The rise of Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) has made air travel affordable for the Middle Class, although ticket prices have now gone up by a certain margin. It is thus surprising that the authorities have not negotiated proactively with more Asian countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, The Philippines as well as African and South American countries, without waiting for countries to give us visa-free/eVisa travel unilaterally.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a good example for the power of negotiations. Today, it is ranked 12th on the Henley Index, with visa-free travel available to 179 countries. But back in 2006, it was in the 62nd place. In less than 20 years, it has jumped a staggering 50 places, signing visa-waiver agreements with a large number of countries. Their hard work has paid off. We expect a similar level of commitment from our Foreign Service for negotiating visa-free travel on behalf of Sri Lankans.

These countries could be having their own reasons for demanding visas from Sri Lankans. It is up to our diplomats to negotiate with these countries and show that Sri Lankans deserve a relaxation of visa rules. We cannot go up the passport rankings automatically – we should do a lot more work to make our passport more recognised. We will have failed miserably if we cannot add at least 20 more countries to visa-free, VOA or e-visa lists in the next 10 years and at least 40 more countries by 1948. This will not be impossible if our diplomats make an honest effort.