Simon Calder: Where passing 'without let or hindrance' is an empty hope, starting with the US

 

Road-weary travellers trying to untangle the red tape involved in a trans-African journey or a rail trip from Moscow to Beijing have long mocked the self-important demand contained in every British passport: "Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State requests and requires in the name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance".

Evidently, though, the good work of William Hague and preceding Foreign Secretaries enable us to scythe through red tape as easily as citizens of those nice, neutral Nordic nations, Finland and Sweden. The latest Visa Restrictions Index shows UK passport is, well, a passport to the planet, or at least earns an open invitation to 79 per cent of its nations.

Being British, long seen internationally as a plea of mitigation for eccentric behaviour, is regarded favourably by almost four out of five countries. But just because you can cruise through the Caribbean with each island's immigration officials barely bothering to look beyond the burgundy cover does not mean that a British passport will open the most alluring doors.

Look beyond Europe: most of the places that most of us want to visit the most require a visa - or something that looks a lot like one. The US demands that holidaymakers jump through a series of online hoops to pass the Electronic System for Travel Authorization, and pay $14 for the privilege. That fee is negligible compared with the cost of reaching the two most populous countries. The cost of getting through passport control into China and India is getting close to £100, with India doubling the cost of a visa earlier this year. That looks more like a tax than a reflection of the costs involved.

African countries are prone to extract as much hard currency as they can from visitors, with barely a thought for the impact on tourism.

Ukraine and Georgia do not usually appear in the same sentence as the term "enlightened nations", but these former Soviet republics realised that ending complex visa rules (including the endearing demand to pay in Postal Orders) would transform their appeal as tourist destinations.

Sadly the wrong kind of passport, as issued in Islamabad, Mogadishu, Baghdad or Kabul, remains a bureaucratic millstone. Perhaps they need to enlist the help of Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State.

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