I will make such a wonderful India that all Americans will stand in line to get a visa for India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Hands up, all those who have heard of The Henley Passport Index. All hands down, I see, which is pretty much what I expected. I had not heard of The Henley Passport Index myself, till I read about it a few days ago. In a nutshell, the index ranks all the world’s passports according to the number of destinations their holders can access without the requirement of a visa. In other words, the holders can either walk through Immigration without so much as a by-your-leave, or they can obtain a visa on arrival with minimal formalities. Unless of course, your passport bears the name ‘Novak Djokovic.’ Of relevance to this piece is the news item that India has now improved its ‘passport power ranking’ for the year 2022, climbing seven places to number 83. The number of countries we proud Indians can now waltz into, waving our passports with a cheery ‘Hi there,’ now stands at 60. That’s straight from the Henley’s mouth.
I couldn’t wait to scroll down the news report to scan the list of countries that will welcome me with open arms. It’s always extremely disconcerting, having gone through several weeks of form-filling and having to fly down (at my expense, I’ll trouble you) to Chennai or New Delhi for interviews with high profile embassies to obtain a three-month tourist visa, to be asked impertinently on arrival, ‘Are you travelling on holiday or business Sir?’ when your passport clearly states that your visa falls under the tourist category. The gall! All that is now in the past, thanks to Henley and his estimable Passport Index. But I digress. The list, the list. Let me take a look at all those countries that await my pleasure.
Broadly, the list of countries was categorized by continents. And what an amazing list of destinations it was. Let us start with the Middle East. You obviously wish to travel to Dubai, Bahrain, Sharjah or Abu Dhabi, the most frequented hot spots in that part of the world. Notwithstanding loonies who wish to bomb some of these airports. All our friends and relations have put down roots there, minting money. There’s also the attraction of taking in periodic sports entertainment, what with IPL games being shifted to the desert, thanks to the pandemic or elections in India. Well, I have news for you. Those countries mentioned are not on Henley’s list guaranteeing visa free entry. Instead, you have a choice of Iran, Jordan, Qatar and Oman. One or two names there may allow me free entry, but I cannot be certain of my exit. That pretty much puts paid to any immediate holiday plans I had for that part of the world. After all, there’s a limit to the quantity of dates and apricots, however delicious, one can consume. I have had it up to here with dried fruits.
We then move on to Europe. Oh, what joy! I have been to most of Europe’s favoured tourist delights, except perhaps much of Eastern Europe, but to re-visit Venice, Florence, Geneva, Paris, Athens, good old London and many other dream cities without visa hassles was beyond my wildest dreams. Guess what, that is exactly what it turned out to be, beyond my wildest dreams. The ‘Europe List’ put together for India by Mr. Henley contained just two nations. Yes, you heard that right. And they were? Albania, about which I knew next to nothing barring some attractive postage stamps in fascinating triangular shapes, which I came across whilst pursuing philately as a hobby during my school going years. Some thieving Gibbons filched my stamp album from my locker, but that’s another story. The second country on that list was, would you believe it, Serbia. If not for Novak Djokovic, I may not even have given this country a second glance, leave alone a first. And after ‘Novax’ Novak’s endless troubles in Australia, largely of his own making, I do not expect to be received by friendly faces in Belgrade. It’s not that Serbia has anything against India, but I think the entire nation is in a bad mood since their icon was, according to the Serbs, so disdainfully treated. As to what Novak did or did not do to earn such opprobrium, is a matter of public record.
Happily, the Caribbean gives us a much wider choice, thanks to Henley’s generosity. As many as 11 nations in the West Indian islands will be happy to lay out the red carpet for Indian citizens without the formality of having our passports stamped with an entry visa. That is how Indian fugitive and jeweller baron Mehul Choksi skedaddled and found a safe haven in Dominica, one of the nations on that favoured list. Cricket fans in India will rejoice at countries like Barbados, Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago opening their gates wide open when international cricket is played in the home of Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Michael Holding and company. As for other attractions like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Montserrat or St. Kitts & Nevis, some of those names ring a bell for their reputation as safe tax havens and not for much else. Still and all, any destination in the sunny West Indies will be worth flying into without any visa hassles.
The vast Asian continent has provided a list of 11 nations for visa-free travel from India. Frankly it’s mostly a ‘been there, done that’ kind of list. Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia – ho hum. Then again, the exotic-sounding Timor-Leste promises much mainly because I know next to nothing about it – the seductive charm of the unknown! And how about this for an intriguing name – Macao (SAR China)? After the Covid 19 virus, allegedly originating from you-know-where, the prefix SAR before China provides speculative food for thought.
America was next on the list and my eyes lit up. New York, New York! No beefy officials to stop me at JFK’s forbidding immigration counters with a ‘Howdy, hold it right there, pal,’ as I flash my no-visa privilege at them. Instead, what I read under ‘America’ had me reeling. Just two names. Bolivia and El Salvador. Crikey! I looked at the continent name again and it said ‘Americas,’ which meant the northern part of the continent was not obliged to wave me through. Latin America was more obliging. Bolivia was fine if I wanted to go on a trip, snort some white powder and get a real high, while risking being waylaid by some gun-toting drug barons. As for El Salvador, I hear the crime rate there is high but it’s safe for tourists. That’s a double-edged, guarded advisory which I have no intention of heeding. Wodehouse memorably named such places ‘the 78 rpm’ countries!
Of all the continents, Africa appears to be the most hospitable. As many as 21 countries there look kindly towards Indians, waiving all visa requirements. That said, whether I really want to land up in places like Rwanda, Botswana, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda, Somalia, Togo and Uganda, I am not sure. Bob Dylan waxed eloquent about the pretty girls in Mozambique and sang feelingly about the place. Which was nice for the Nobel troubadour but then, I am not Bob Dylan and may not get a similar warm reception. Cape Verde and Comores Islands sound inviting, but then all islands do. Never heard of these two, so I’ll take a raincheck.
Bottom line is that India’s jumping up the passport power rankings does little to fill me with unbounded joy, as I am not about to board a plane to any of these destinations in a hurry. Amidst these cheerless reflections, Henley also informs me that Japan and Singapore top the list with 192 nations open to them sans visas, Germany and South Korea a close second with 190 countries letting their populace in without let or hindrance. Under the circumstances, I don’t see why we should be screaming deliriously from the rooftops at just 60 countries, not all of them very salubrious, placing the welcome mat for us. However, let me tell you what gives me immense pleasure – the fact that our friendly neighbour Pakistan has been ranked the 4th worst on the passport ladder, with just 31 destinations to boast about (China could be there!). Just below Pakistan are Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. So, there you have it. If that is not something to shout about, I don’t know what is.