North Korea’s Passport Is Apparently More Powerful Than These Countries

The totalitarian kingdom has some flex over some countries in South Asia.
October 13, 2021, 11:28am
passport, mask and airplane
COVID-19 vaccination QR code, a passport, mask and an airplane toy. Image for illustrative purposes only. Photo: Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

The world’s top passport ranking authority released a list that shows how COVID-19 regulations have made travel even more difficult, particularly if you’re from South Asia.

All eight countries in the region have slid even lower in ranking and five are in the bottom ten of the list of 227 countries in the latest Henley Passport Index. Nepal, Pakistan and Afghanistan all ranked below North Korea for the third year running. India and Bhutan had the biggest drop compared to any country in the world. And Maldives, a popular tropical destination that is traditionally the region’s highest ranker, fell seven spots to number 66.

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The index ranks “travel-friendly” passports according to the number of destinations their holders can visit without a visa acquired prior to arrival. The rankings are based on data analysis provided by global aviation leader International Air Transport Association.

In the list, India dropped a whopping eight spots - likely due to the severity of its COVID-19 cases - and is now at number 90, with its passport holders allowed to travel visa-free to 58 countries. But the U.S., Italy and Spain, also deeply impacted by the pandemic, did not see a change in ranking and are still in the top ten.

North Korea, meanwhile, placed 109th on the index. The country has been under partial lockdown since last year and has restricted international travel, even more than it normally does. In July, the country’s government rejected three million COVID-19 vaccines offered by the World Health Organisation. This is the third time the country, which maintains it has recorded no cases of COVID-19 ever, has turned down vaccines. Despite this, its total score stayed the same.

Sri Lanka, another popular South Asian tropical destination, did slightly better than the totalitarian kingdom at 107 - sharing spots with Iran, Lebanon and Sudan - while Bangladesh was at 108, along with Kosovo and Libya. Nepal was at 110, Pakistan at 113 and Afghanistan is at the last spot: 116. 

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While most South Asian countries nose-dived in the list, East Asian nations Japan and Singapore stood at the top of this year’s list, with their passport holders allowed to travel visa-free to 192 countries, and South Korea shared the second position with Germany. This is the third consecutive year that Japan landed on top of the list and Singapore and South Korea have been in the top three. The rest of the top ten in the list are mostly Western countries.

The Henley Passport Index ranking comes as countries are easing travel rules for international visitors almost two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the index did not take countries’ COVID-19 emergency restrictions into account when it came up with the list.

The Henley & Partners Holding’s Global Mobility report says, “Many countries in the global south have relaxed their borders in a concerted effort to revive their economies but there has been very little reciprocity from countries in the global north, which have enforced some of the most stringent inbound COVID-19-related travel restrictions. Even fully vaccinated travelers from countries at the lower end of the Henley Passport Index remain locked out of most of the developed world.”

India, which ranked 82nd last year, will be reopening its borders to international visitors on Oct. 15, more than a year since it kept travelers out. Tourists may enter through non-chartered flights with a tourist visa starting Nov. 15, the government announced

Meanwhile, in Bhutan, tourist entry has been partially allowed with a mandatory quarantine of 21 days. Bhutan's ranking slipped, too, from 87th place last year to 96th place this year.

Even though Sri Lanka imposed a two-month lockdown on its residents, the country opened to international visitors in August. Sri Lanka's Tourism Development Authority had announced that there is no restrictive quarantine required for travellers. Fully vaccinated travellers are allowed to stay at any type of accommodation with no on-arrival PCR test required, while partially vaccinated and non-vaccinated travellers will be given accommodation at selected hotels. 

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