The South African passport has slipped from 53rd place to 56th in a year — and by 21 places behind its best ranking in 2007/2008 — in the latest Henley Passport Index.

The index is a ranking of all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without a prior visa‚ based on data from the International Air Transport Association (Iata) and research by Henley.

The ranking puts SA alongside Belize and just ahead of Kuwait and East Timor.

The UK and US are less open than before while Asia’s passport power dominates.

SA’s tourism industry has continued to lobby for improved ease of access for visitors to the country. The government says it has a target of enticing more than 21-million international visitors by 2030.

In November‚ tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane welcomed the scrapping of unabridged birth certificates for international minors travelling to SA with their parents. “To completely rescind this requirement is a win for tourism and an upside for industry and travellers alike as this has been a real concern raised throughout my engagements with various stakeholders‚” she said.

The corruption scandals plaguing SA are also hurting its reputation abroad.

The Henley report noted that despite the economic benefits that “open borders” bring‚ visa waivers can also pose a potential threat for the host country‚ as they undercut the host government’s ability to vet the visitors through background checks.

“As such‚ countries with strong domestic institutions and political stability are able to sign more visa waiver agreements.”

New Zealand and Singapore hold the top spots in terms of government integrity‚ followed by northern European countries and the UK.

“It is not surprising that countries which have lower passport power also have lower government integrity scores. For instance‚ the South African passport is ranked 56th on the Henley index and has a government integrity score of 39.7 out of 100. These results imply that governments associated with relatively high corruption have difficulties increasing their visa-free destinations‚ while high-functioning states are likely to have stronger passports‚” the report says.

Passport index leaders

For the third consecutive year‚ Japan has secured the top spot on the index‚ with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 191. Singapore keeps second place with a score of 190‚ while South Korea drops down a rank to third alongside Germany‚ giving their passport holders visa-free/visa-on-arrival access to 189 destinations worldwide.

Henley noted: “The US and the UK continue their downward trajectory on the index’s rankings. While both countries remain in the top 10‚ their shared eighth place is a significant decline from the No 1 spot they jointly held in 2015.”

Elsewhere in the top 10‚ Finland and Italy share fourth place‚ with a score of 188‚ while Denmark‚ Luxembourg and Spain together hold fifth place with a score of 187.

The UAE is the strongest individual climber over the past decade‚ from 65th place in 2010 to 18th place in 2020.

Taiwan has also made strong gains over the past 10 years‚ moving 37 spots up the ranking from 69th in 2010 to 32nd now. Georgia and Ukraine climbed 19 and 22 places up the rankings respectively.

Globally‚ states affected by ongoing conflict or unrest have experienced heavy losses in score over the past decade. In the Middle East‚ Syria has dropped 18 places because 2010‚ while Yemen has dropped 15 spots in that period.

In the rest of Africa‚ Libya has dropped 15 places while Mali has dropped 13.

Afghanistan remains at the bottom of the travel freedom spectrum‚ with its nationals only able to visit a mere 26 destinations visa-free.

“Asian countries’ dominance of the top spots is a clear argument for the benefits of open-door policies and the introduction of mutually beneficial trade agreements. Over the past few years‚ we have seen the world adapt to mobility as a permanent condition of global life. The latest rankings show that the countries that embrace this reality are thriving‚ with their citizens enjoying ever-increasing passport power and the array of benefits that come with it‚” said Christian H Kaelin‚ chair of Henley & Partners.

Countries with citizenship-by-investment programmes continue to consolidate their positions on the index. Malta sits in ninth place‚ with access to 183 destinations about the world‚ while Montenegro holds on to 46th place‚ with a visa-free/visa-on-arrival score of 124. In the Caribbean‚ St Kitts and Nevis‚ and Antigua and Barbuda secured 27th and 30th spot‚ respectively.

Read the full report here.