Singapore has kept its top spot amidst Southeast Asia as the country with the highest visa-free access, revealed the 2017 Visa Restrictions Index, an annual travel freedom ranking published by the global residence and citizenship advisory firm, Henley & Partners. The index is produced in partnership with the International Air Transport Association(IATA), which maintains the world's largest and most authoritative database of travel information.
Climbing one spot from last year, Singapore ranks 4th globally – its highest ranking on the Index in 10 years – with visa-free access to 173 countries. The lion city remains number one in Southeast Asia, followed closely by neighbours Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam with visa-free accesss to 164 and 151 countries respectively. Malaysia ranks 2 nd regionally and 13 th globally, dropping one place from last year while Brunei Darussalam retains its 23rd global ranking.
The biggest climbers in the region were Laos (8th regionally, 88th globally) and Myanmar (9th regionally, 93 rd globally) rising two spots each from last year. Laos added one country to take its visa-free access total to 48 whilst Myanmar brought down its total to 42, one less than last year.
According to Dominic Volek, Managing Partner of Henley & Partners Singapore and Head Southeast Asia, although the size and make-up of the "Top 10" remains the same as last year, the changing geopolitical climate could well affect the rankings over the next 12 months.
"Over the last year alone, we have seen several major changes to the global political landscape – such as Brexit and US President Donald Trump's travel ban – that will likely change global mobility as we know now. This year's Visa Restriction Index is a reflection of the global shift in travel freedom, highlighting the impact of entry barriers and movement restrictions" said Volek.
In total, 48 countries lost ground over the past year, dropping between one and three places, and only 42 countries showed no movement at all. Germany holds on to its top spot on the index for the fourth consecutive year, with access to 176 countries in total. Sweden also remains static in second place with 175 countries, and Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain and the US jointly rank third, with their nationals enjoying access to 174 countries without a visa.
The UK, however, has slipped down yet another position this year to fourth, having shared first place with Germany for three consecutive years from 2013–2015. Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan sit at the very bottom of the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index, each with visa-free access to less than 30 countries worldwide.
The biggest movers in this year's index were Peru and Ghana. Peru was the highest individual mover, gaining 15 places. Island nations also made a strong showing, with the Marshall Islands, the Solomon Islands, Micronesia, Kiribati and Tuvalu all gaining over nine places. In contrast, Ghana showed the most negative movement, losing four places in one year.
The fortunes of the emerging economies of the BRICS nations were varied. Brazil and China both increased their standing on the index, moving up three and two ranks respectively. However, the other three all lost ground: Russia dropping three places, India two, and South Africa one.
"Despite the world becoming seemingly more mobile and interdependent, there is still huge disparity in the levels of travel freedom between countries. Generally, visa requirements are a reflection of a country's relationship with others, and take into account diplomatic relationships between countries, reciprocal visa arrangements, security risks, and the dangers of visa and immigration regulation violations," said Volek.
Citizenship-by- Investment Programs
In contrast to 12 years ago when the Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index was first published, there are now many more residence- and citizenship-by- investment programs available for those who wish to enhance their travel freedom. More and more governments are embracing these programs as a means of stimulating economic development and growth, and there is an increasing number of wealthy and talented individuals looking to diversify their citizenship portfolios to give themselves and their families greater international opportunity, stability, freedom and security.
Volek pointed out that the countries that offer the most important citizenship-by- investment programs in the world continue to perform strongly on the index. "Malta offers the top-ranked investment migration program globally and scores very highly with the world's 10 th most powerful passport and visa-free access to 167 countries. Austria is also in the top ten with a total of 173 countries and Cyprus is not far behind at 16th place, with 158 countries accessible without a visa."
Likewise, countries that offer citizenship-by- investment programs in the Caribbean have performed well. Grenada is ranked at 37 and offers successful applicants visa-free access to 124 countries including China, Europe's Schengen area, Singapore, Brazil, and other key markets. Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis share 30 th place on the Index this year, with visa-free access to 136 countries, and St. Lucia offers its citizens access to 127 countries worldwide and is ranked 36.
"For individuals who hold passports of countries with fewer visa waiver agreements, a second or even third citizenship can open up travel opportunities to countries previously restricted by time-consuming visa application requirements and processes. The Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index is relevant to both individuals interested in improving their mobility and the quality of their nationality, as well as governments focused on improving the local, regional and global opportunities inherent in their passports," concluded Volek.