If there is one resolution that you must get right in 2017, make it travel. It enriches the mind and liberates the soul. So, make it a case of “have passport, will travel”. Wait a minute, though – it is not so easy. If you hold a Sri Lankan passport, you can only visit around 40 countries without a visa. Sri Lanka is placed 96th in the world (along with Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo and Lebanon) in the Henley and Partners Visa Restrictions Index which is topped by Germany, Sweden and Finland and bottomed out by Afghanistan. Ninety six is arguably not a good place to be.
There are many reasons why we should be higher up in the rankings. Sri Lanka is no longer a “poor” country as the normal definition goes. We are now a Middle Income Country with a good segment of the population having a disposable income that can be used for travel. We find that several countries which are only marginally better off than Sri Lanka in terms of poverty levels and development are placed much higher in the Visa Restrictions rankings, with visa free access to many more countries. For example, many developing countries in South America enjoy visa-free access to more than 100 countries and for many African nations, this figure is around 80 countries. Citizens in neighbouring Maldives can travel visa-free to 80 countries, double that of Sri Lanka. Indians can travel visa free to 52 countries. In South Asia, only Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan have a lower ranking on the visa index than Sri Lanka.
One other factor that should help other countries to view Sri Lanka favourably is that the war is now over. Actually, it ended around eight years ago. Some people did try to flee during the war and even after the war, many economic migrants tried to reach other shores. Both these movements have now ceased, with Sri Lanka gaining political and social stability. The Government has also enhanced relations with the outside world.
The good news first. Among the countries that Sri Lankans can travel visa-free are; Singapore, Maldives, Seychelles, Nepal, Indonesia, Lesotho, Cambodia, Ecuador, Bolivia, Bahamas, Comoros, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Samoa, Timor Leste (East Timor), Uganda, Tuvalu and Togo. Sri Lankans can also visit a few other countries on an e-visa/Electronic Travel Authorization (ETA) basis including India, Myanmar, Azerbaijan, Gabon, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Malaysia is reported to be mulling on giving the e-Visa facility again to Sri Lankans, having stopped it sometime back in favour of paper visas. Note that in some countries, you can just walk through the immigration while some other countries require a processing payment.
Sri Lankans can also apply online for visas to a few developed countries but there is the usual vetting/interview process to go through physically and manually and on-arrival, the obligatory fingerprints or iris scans.
There are also a few countries such as Mexico, Montenegro and Albania that one can visit with a passport having a US visa. Incidentally, Sri Lanka itself was one of the first countries to introduce an ETA system which is now followed by many other countries.
In case you think it is difficult to get ahead in the Visa Restrictions Chart, think again. Many countries have made significant gains in just a couple of years. Timor Leste has climbed 33 places, Colombia by 25 (and that is before the peace accord with FARC rebels was signed) and Tonga by 16 in the 2016 rankings. UAE, Bosnia and Serbia have all moved up 20 paces or more within the past few years. Bilateral negotiations are the key to this success rate and our authorities must start discussions with many developing countries which still require a pre-issued visa from Sri Lankans.
Sri Lankan authorities should start with the SAARC region where we have visa-free/e-Visa access only to three countries. This is indeed a matter of concern. How can we even think of greater SAARC unity when the citizens need a visa to go to the next country? And, it is not enough to get visa-free access only for diplomatic and official passport holders (for any country).
Real people-to-people contact happens only when the visa regimes are liberalized and people on both sides begin to travel more. Just one year into visa-free travel to Indonesia, record numbers of Sri Lankans are travelling to that country. So far there have been no reports of that facility being misused by Sri Lankans.
Visa free status can be gained in two ways. Sometimes, foreign Governments decide to liberalize their visa requirements unilaterally for a select few countries, like Indonesia did recently. The other method is agreeing on mutual visa liberalization. If countries A and B currently mutually require visas from their citizens, they can negotiate to mutually end that requirement (visa waiver or reciprocity).
The Government should negotiate with the four SAARC countries to liberalize the visa requirements without delay. The same goes for a few other countries in our region which still impose visa requirements on Sri Lankans although they themselves are termed as developing countries. Among these countries are, Thailand (huge potential for pilgrimages and leisure tourism if it becomes visa-free/e-visa), Vietnam, Laos and Philippines.
The same goes for Africa, where many developing countries some of which are actually less developed than Sri Lanka, impose visa restrictions. Africa is now closer than ever, thanks to a plethora of new flights from hubs such as, Dubai.
Affluent Sri Lankans are even travelling to South America where two countries are already visa free. Again, there are new direct flights to South America from Asia which makes this easy and more affordable (in relative terms).
The authorities must negotiate with more countries in Africa and Central/South America to get visa-free access for Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans will not pose a migration, health or other threats to these developing countries. We should strive to climb at least five places each year in the Henley Index to add more value to the Sri Lankan passport which will soon be completely biometric. There should be a defined goal – we should aim at around 100 visa-free countries by around 2035.
International travel is getting more affordable than ever, thanks to the rise of ultra-low cost carriers (LCCs). Airfares have drastically come down and even the legacy carriers can afford to give tickets away at dirt-cheap prices due to the oil glut. Countries worldwide should seize this opportunity to open up and share their delights with the world. Restrictive visa controls must be done away with where possible so that travellers around the world can discover and explore more new places.