Freedom of movement. Human rights. Enhanced international cooperation. Seamless border crossings. Visa-free agreements are essential tools for a more just, collaborative and open world.
From the Silk Road to the fall of the Berlin Wall, freedom of movement has laid the foundations for modern history, shaping how we live, think, and behave for centuries. That desire to travel and exchange ideas is rooted in all of us – a testament to humanity’s inherent nature to expand our horizons year after year, century after century.
Before the pandemic, the World Openness Score peaked at an all-time high, largely thanks to a wellspring of visa-free agreements, which created an international environment ripe for new opportunities, cultural exchanges and business partnerships.
After peaking in 2019, the score dropped precipitously the following year, when virtually every country had to re-evaluate visa protocols in the face of a rapidly spreading global pandemic. “We are essentially back to the same level of global mobility as five years ago,” explains Armand Arton, president and founder of Arton Capital. “The world has slowly started to rebound, and if we continue along this trend, we estimate that we’ll be back to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023.”
But the world can’t open up again without visa-free agreements. These agreements can either be bilateral, like what we see across the European Union, or unilateral, when one participating country permits visa-free travel to another – but not the other way around. The vast majority of visa-free agreements, between 70-80%, are unilateral, adds Arton.
Usually, a one-way agreement arises when a country poses some risk due to political instability, security concerns, economic uncertainty or COVID-19. If there’s reason to believe that citizens of one country might overstay or cause harm in another country, then a reciprocal visa-free agreement is unlikely.
“Essentially, a visa-free agreement is a symbol of trust between two countries,” explains Arton. “One country trusts that the citizens of another will enter, respect the visa duration, then return home. If everyone abides by these terms, then both countries can reap the many social and economic benefits of open borders.”
Both bilateral and unilateral agreements have been proven to foster cooperation and trade, make border crossings more seamless and improve international relations. Politically, they can serve as a means to cement existing relationships, open the door to conversations, influence policy and lay the groundwork for new trade partnerships. Economically, they are also a no-brainer: an increase in visitors boosts revenues and diversifies GDP.
Humanitarian benefits add another layer of value, which Arton knows all too well from his personal experience. “Back when I was growing up with a Bulgarian passport, my family and I had to cross 14 countries to travel to Morocco for my parents’ work,” recalls Arton. “My father waited in line at 14 different embassies each time we made the trip, just to prove that we weren’t going to do anything wrong. It feels like you’re guilty until proven innocent – a second-class citizen.”
The Bulgarian entrepreneur, who now also holds a Canadian passport, says that the experience can be traumatizing for many, and it speaks to the broader issue of why visa-free agreements reflect a more open and inclusive global society. “Mobility is a basic human right. No one should have to be treated like a criminal or unable to leave home just because of the passport they hold,” he adds.
According to Arton, visa-free agreements will be an essential ingredient for reopening the world as more countries gain access to COVID-19 vaccinations. “The foreign ministries of two countries usually arrange visa-free agreements, so I am very excited for upcoming global summits and conferences like the Global Citizen Forum and Expo 2020 Dubai,” says Arton. “With global platforms like this, many meaningful discussions can take place.”
Expo 2020 Dubai, which started in October, has welcomed 192 countries – the most in World’s Fair history – at this year’s event, with delegates from around the world in attendance. Despite recent setbacks, the record-setting international participation serves as a strong indicator that the world is still trending towards globalization.
“It’s very symbolic to have a truly global World’s Expo at this juncture in history,” says Arton. “It’s one of the greatest crossroads in the world, especially as events like the UN General Assembly haven’t taken place in person for two years due to COVID-19.”
One reason uptake has been so high at this year’s Expo? Visa-free agreements. As the host country, the United Arab Emirates offered to subsidize the pavilions of countries who couldn’t afford their own – in exchange for visa-free agreements.
As a result, Arton says, the UAE has signed the most visa-free agreements of any country in the last three years. “Currently, there are only about 10 countries where UAE citizens cannot travel visa-free,” says Arton.
“That’s a big reason why the UAE actually holds the world’s most powerful passport on the Passport Index right now. They are big proponents of visa-free agreements, and have led by example to show other leaders why it’s so important for their own citizens.”