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My foreign policy is to take a ticket and go anywhere I damn well please!” stated Ernest Bevin, Britain’s first post-war Foreign Secretary. Today his vision is almost possible if – like me – you hold a British passport. The UK travel document allows visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 174 countries, making it the ‘best’ in the world, marginally ahead of passports from other western democracies.

On the other hand, I just can’t take my wife anywhere. It’s not that she’s any trouble, but she holds a passport welcome in only 69 countries – a Thai passport – so whenever we plan a holiday overseas, we always have to think about the cost and inconvenience of obtaining visas.

Overall, the global trend is towards greater openness: the UNWTO reports that today 64% of the world’s population is affected by visa policies, compared to 77% just seven years ago. The most common changes are the introduction of visa-on-arrival policies in countries which previously demanded pre-arranged visas, although fees are still involved. One of the most open regions in the world is Southeast Asia, with visa policies affecting only 38% of potential visitors – a factor which boosts tourism considerably.

Japan Welcomes Thais

Visa policies are worth watching closely because changes can have significant effects. On July 1st 2013, Japan dropped its visa requirement for Thai visitors, instead granting visa-free access for 15 days. Monthly arrivals immediately doubled compared to 2012, and when Thai Air Asia X and Jetstar Asia introduced daily low cost services to Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka in 2014, the increase over the 2012 figures became threefold. Although that growth looks set to continue more gradually, it’s difficult to imagine that any single future event could have as dramatic an impact as changing the visa rules.

This kind of change is something to bear in mind when analyzing tourism data. From the arrivals trend for Thais visiting Japan, one might infer strong potential for further rapid growth if one was unaware of the policy shift behind the upturn. This was evident at HICAP Singapore when Sri Lanka drew praise for its introduction of an e-visa policy; submit your details online along with 30 USD, and receive confirmation within minutes. Attendees murmured approvingly at this example of progress – unaware that prior to 2012, no visa was required at all for many nationalities.

Interestingly however, if all you want is a two-day transit stopover in Sri Lanka, the fee is waived, but how many people are aware of that? Despite an interest in these matters, I recently rejected a flight routing on Sri Lankan Airlines which allowed 36 hours in Colombo simply because I didn’t know the visa would be free. This is why the UNWTO stresses that clear and simple communication of visa regulations is absolutely critical.

Vietnam’s Bright Future

Vietnam is perhaps the most restrictive ASEAN destination, and one where visa policies may significantly impact future tourism growth. At present, the strongest source markets don’t need visas: Russia, Korea, Japan and other ASEAN states. However, if nearby Thailand is any indication, there is ample room for growth from Europe, North America and Australasia – all regions whose citizens currently require visas. Vietnam even falls short on UNWTO’s advice about clarity: visitors to the website of the Vietnamese Embassy in London seeking information about visa fees are invited to send an email for further information. It is no surprise therefore that almost five times as many Britons visited Thailand last year as Vietnam. However, when Vietnam finally relaxes its visa regime – and the plans are in the pipeline – it is easy to imagine those numbers changing very quickly.

Through their visa regulations, governments can play a huge role in nurturing tourism, whether via concessions to particular source markets, or open door policies to all. When the rules change, new trends are created and opportunities abound, so understanding the latest nuances of the world’s different visa regimes always comes in handy..