Travelling is undoubtedly one of the most educating, enriching, exciting and valuable experience for all people who have the resources to indulge in this wonderful hobby. I have the privilege and good fortune to have travelled extensively all over the world and enjoyed the ecstasy and wonders of many great places. According to my daughter, I am a travel freak and I have no hesitation admitting my great passion for my hobby of globetrotting.
My travelling passion began at a much younger age and back in the 1970s travelling was easier because visa conditions were much relaxed, and many countries of the world offered visa on arrival for Pakistani passport holders. With the passage of time visa restrictions got more stringent and by the decade of the 1980s, visa on arrival became a distant dream.
It was in 1987 that I landed at Zurich airport and presented my passport to the immigration officer, who gave a strange look to my passport and said “Are you here on business or pleasure?” my response was “I’m here on a short holiday.” He looked at me again and responded “Do Pakistanis take holidays?” I was taken aback by his rude remark and responded “What the hell do you mean? We are very hardworking people and of course we take annual holidays!” My angry retort surprised him and he was immediately apologetic. “I’m sorry sir, I did not mean to be rude, welcome to Switzerland have a nice holiday!” and he stamped my passport with a flourish.
A lot of water has flowed under the Ravi Bridge since then, and I am still following my travel passion. But now, travelling on a Pakistani passport is a real pain in the you-know-where. The first obstacle is the visa process. Submission of the passport along with a long list of the required documents and then the painful interview to prove that you have no intention of settling in that country and will return home. And after that, the long wait for the return of your passport with the approved visa. Even a valid visa is no guarantee of entry, because you have to satisfy the immigration officer at the point of entry.
For people fond of traveling, the passport is the document that can take them to new places, present new opportunities, begin new adventures, introduce diverse cultures, show breathtaking views and, in short, open a world of entertainment excitement and possibilities. Unfortunately, today people with a Pakistani passport are subject to many restrictions and the green passport has become a great burden and a painful barrier for a traveler. Today, the worth or the strength of any passport is evaluated by the Henley Passport Index (HPI). The index has listed 199 passports of different countries and evaluates them against 227 travel points or destinations. It updates the rankings of passports and indicates visa requirements for different countries. For each destination, the index assigns a score of 1 if the passport holders of a certain country do not require a visa or if they could obtain a visa-on-arrival or any electronic travel authority (ETA) upon entry.
This comprehensive evaluation provides an overview of the travel privileges associated with each passport. Today, the most respected and powerful passport in the world is the Singapore passport, that allows the holder visa-free entry to 192 countries of the world. Next in line are the passports of Germany, Italy and Spain with visa-free facility to 190 countries and the in third position are Japan, Finland, Austria, Luxembourg, France and Sweden.
The Pakistani passport unfortunately happens to be placed almost at the very bottom of the list. For the last three years in a row, our passport has been ranked as the fourth worst passport and it is only above the passports of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan – all three countries embroiled in conflict civil war and chaos.
A passport is not just a travel document. It highlights a country’s global image, mirrors the security conditions, relations with other countries and facilitates the holders to travel easily for business or pleasure. So, a weak passport like ours heaps untold miseries on the holder and penalises them for circumstances beyond their control. The Pakistani passport today presents many impediments and obstacles for people traveling for tourism, studies, and business or just for visiting family members.
Students who desire to proceed abroad for higher education, exchange programs, or conferences/workshops have to face increasingly complex visa processes, burdened with requirements such as showing proof of considerable assets in their home country, adding layers of complexities to their academic pursuits. Likewise, business activities can be hampered given limited mobility, making it challenging to access foreign markets and curtailing the state’s economic growth. Unfortunately, Pakistani citizens have to invest considerable time, money, and effort to avail different opportunities due to visa modalities.
Pakistan has been the epicentre of terrorism since the last few decades and the spate of terrorist activities like suicide bombings, religious extremism and attacks on the non-Muslim minorities have very greatly damaged its global image. The country’s internal security conditions have reinforced the negative perception regarding internal security. The country is once again in the vicious grip of extremist groups and this does not auger well for ant improvement in the respect of our passport. For improving the negative image of our passport, we have to make serious efforts to improve the image of our country as a peaceful and democratic society. And for this to happen, the internal challenges such as political instability and the economic conditions must be improved.
Our governments in future must improve bilateral relations with the countries of the world, increase trade and economic cooperation promote more people-to-people contacts. Relevant ministries and departments like the Foreign Office need to direct more focus on visa-free or at least visa-on-arrival agreements with more countries. Tourism in Pakistan can play an important role in this regard - better infrastructure and facilities could make it an attractive tourist destination, easing bilateral agreement processes for visa-free access.