Before the coronavirus pandemic, a U.S. passport ensured a high degree of mobility. But as countries closed their borders and grounded flights in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus, much of the world was suddenly cut off from nonessential travel.
At least through the summer months, and maybe beyond, the virus has redistributed who can go where, under what conditions. In the short term, holding a particular passport no longer necessarily ensures the level of mobility that it used to — the hierarchy has been reshuffled. Rather than the economic and diplomatic considerations that typically determine international travel privileges, a different, often superseding factor has emerged: how well a country has avoided or contained the coronavirus.
Take, for example, travel to Greece, a popular destination with a low infection rate, set to reopen to international tourism on June 15. After weeks of back-and-forth, the country has finalized a new policy, in which visitors will not all meet the same reception. Travelers flying from high-risk airports, as determined by the European Aviation Safety Agency — including international airports in Italy, France, the United Kingdom and the United States — will have to self-quarantine for a week (or enter a two-week supervised quarantine if they test positive). In a twist, travelers coming from airports in countries including Slovenia, Latvia and Lebanon will have a far easier time entering than a Brit or an American.
“The travel restrictions for health reasons have made the world smaller,” said Gloria Guevara Manzo, president of the U.K.-based World Travel and Tourism Council.
All countries issue passports, but they are not all created equal. In better times, a U.S. passport meant visa-free entry to more than 115 countries, with the option of getting a visa on arrival in more than 50 others. Some wealthy countries, mostly in Europe, conferred even more ease of movement. Citizens of countries in Europe’s Schengen zone could cross borders without a second thought.
At the other end of the spectrum, for instance, an Afghan passport holder must apply for a visa in advance to travel most places outside Afghanistan. It has always been an unequal system.
Many of the privileges associated with highly valued passports are likely to weather the crisis, even if they have been put on hold, experts said. Visa rules, for example, are often based on long-term diplomatic and trade interests, said Paddy Blewer of Henley & Partners, a London-based consultancy that provides advice on citizenship and residencies. Most countries are not interested in shutting out the business opportunities presented by ease of travel to and from wealthy countries like the United States. And changing rules for Schengen zone members can be a complicated process, Guevara Manzo said.
But the pandemic has upended typical passport hierarchies in other ways. For one, individual European Union countries have begun to decide who can enter based on coronavirus concerns, not just visas. That’s why Greece has put up obstacles to travelers whom it might ordinarily court from France and the United Kingdom, but is set to welcome tourists from countries outside the Schengen zone, including Bulgaria and Lebanon.
Some among the rich and powerful, who have long sought second passports, have taken notice of the changes the virus has wrought.
According to Henley & Partners, wealthy clients seeking to establish a second citizenship are looking for countries that provide them the best access and resources — and some are now considering coronavirus response, and pandemic preparedness in general, among other criteria.
“They are talking to us because they are now considering setting up a separate base in a safer place,” said Blewer, the company’s public relations director.
Henley & Partners saw a 42 percent increase in clients seeking a new passport from the end of 2019 to the first quarter of 2020, according to Blewer. The coronavirus, he said, was a probable motivator.
Blewer declined to list the countries in which his clients are hoping to take up residence, but described some general trends: An Australian passport has become increasingly appealing to clients in South Africa and Asia, while Cyprus and Malta are of growing interest for people seeking quick access to Europe and Switzerland, in part for access to high-quality medical care.
Henley & Partners have created a passport index, which ranks passports by the freedom of movement they impart. Coronavirus may have changed the system for now, but it has not rewritten the ranking, which the company updates based on “peacetime” conditions, said Blewer.
Putting passport privileges aside, many countries since March have imposed bans on all but essential travel or imposed mandatory quarantines on travelers. The United States continues to bar entry to non-U.S. citizens or residents who have recently been in China, Iran, the United Kingdom, Ireland, the European Schengen zone and Brazil. European Union member states have shut their borders.
But as countries reopen their economies, financial and social pressure is growing for borders to reopen too.
In countries that have largely brought their outbreak under control, travel corridors, or bubbles, could be a viable option. The idea is to forge travel agreements among groups of countries to keep the virus out and prevent it from circulating from hard-hit to relatively unscathed regions.
Australia and New Zealand, both of which have contained their outbreaks, are considering a travel corridor. Japan, South Korea and Singapore may team up in another, said Guevara Manzo. Countries in Europe are eager to open tourism to Greece, with its relatively low infection risk. Eastern Europeans, long viewed as sources of cheap migrant labor in Western Europe, are now prime tourists to attract thanks to their countries’ low rates of infection. Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia are joining forces for a Baltic travel bubble.
“We are seeing these bubbles growing as we speak,” said Guevara Manzo.
Reopening has not always gone smoothly. The United Kingdom’s initial announcement of a mandatory 14-day quarantine for travelers led to confusion about who was exempted and why. In mid-May, Spain said it would impose a quarantine on French travelers, and France said it would do the same in retaliation. By the end of May, Spain had said it would stop mandating quarantines for visitors later this summer. Sweden, plagued by a relatively high death rate, has expressed displeasure that its fellow Nordic neighbors Denmark and Norway are teaming up as travel bubble buddies without it.
The European Union, according to a leaked memo seen by the Guardian, is reportedly planning to propose a coordinated reopening of the E.U.’s once-open borders, the first phase of which would have E.U. countries with “similar coronavirus risk profiles” allow tourists to move among them. It’s a notable, though medically based, shift from the dream of the single European passport.
Guevara Manzo said she expected some subregions within nations to set up corridors with other countries, another challenge to the typical international travel framework. Countries may look to increase the ease of e-visas or visas on arrival to attract travelers from now-coveted coronavirus-free places.
“We’re going to an unknown territory,” said Guevara Manzo, “and everyone is trying to avoid a second wave.”