Six months into the year, Craig Collins and Ray Rackham of CIBT looks at the visa and immigration challenges of a world in continuing transition.
Travel Risk: Decades in the Making
Risk and crises have affected the travel and immigration industry long before Covid. Indeed, the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003 had a significantly negative affect on tourism in most of Asia (with evidence in 2004 suggesting that in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Vietnam lost $20bn in GDP as a direct result of the restrictive travel measure put it place). Whilst international travel had been identified as a vector for disease dissemination prior to SARS, the impact on depleted business travel and tourism came as a shock to the international community, the world remained ill-prepared to navigate the complexities of almost global shut down two decades later. But public health issues have not been the only vectors that have impacted international travel, and the ability for individuals to move freely in a globalised world.
Thinking in both immigration and travel terms, risk mitigation strategies have traditionally been linked to single risk events in an otherwise relatively stable and predictable environment. Until 2020 most immigration and travel risk thinking concerned itself with a concept of risk as a compliance function, and identified risks were invariably connected to an individual applicant or traveller who posed a one-off risk when traveling across borders. Global risk events that negatively impacted travel and immigration programs were traditionally considered in silo, as the impact was felt only for a brief period of time. The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano had an obvious and immediate impact on air travel, for example. European airspace was closed for a six-day period, culminating in an estimated $1.7bn in lost revenue to airlines. This changed the aviation sector’s risk assessments permanently and heralded new lines of scientific investigation. But it didn’t make the entire industry stop and think, “do we really need to rethink risk at a fundamental level?”
Analysis at any broader level continued to be focused on a firm set of rules: framed by the increased integration of economies around the world. This heightened integration was the result of the movement of goods, services, capital, people and knowledge across borders; all of which brought individual compliance challenges. The setting up of internal border controls in the Schengen area, as a result of the European refugee crisis in 2015; or the raft of Executive Orders in the USA, limiting the travel and migration abilities of nationals from countries where the main practiced religion was predominantly Islam, throughout 2017-2020; or the post 2016 Brexit referendum impacts to travelers who were operating in a UK outside of the EU (where previously British nationals could travel freely across the Member States and undertake any number of activities without question, and now cannot); were dealt with by most travel managers as single, individual events that required urgent and nuanced attention; but remained separate to and of each other.
The above examples demonstrate that successive public health risks and other non-health related crises have significant impacts on the ability of the globally mobile businessperson to travel freely around the world. But the immediate and catastrophic impact of Covid has directed the industry to look at these decades old risk events and pose the question: how prepared were we all for the inevitable event that closed the world, and how should we now consider risk in 2023 and beyond? With this in mind, what can the lessons if the first six months of 2023 teach us.
2023: An Uncertain World
At the beginning of 2022, business travellers and those who were travelling across borders for work or study found themselves operating in a world of masks, vaccination requirements, PCR testing and a raft of other administrative hurdles before they stepped foot onto a plane. While some border controls persisted, throughout the year many of these requirements were removed as international travel returned to a form of normalcy not seen since 2019. If 2022 marked the successive reopening of travel lanes worldwide, 2023 has really closed the chapter of the closed world, marked significantly by the return to travel into China.
The Current Risk Position
CIBT has reviewed over one hundred pertinent changes to immigration and travel legislation, policy and process in over fifty countries since the beginning of the year. While many of these changes do not present themselves as risk events (the most common example being moves to digitization across swathes of the globe), there are some interesting themes developing: as the impact of the pandemic is waning, there may be a new discourse on public health policy; countries are still utilising risk events from years prior to the pandemic to inform travel policy; and the impact of political decisions made long before we were discussing vaccination requirements are being felt in real time, many years after they were made.
The Covid Legacy
Unsurprisingly, 2023 saw successive governments introduce, reintroduce and remove policies that were in place as a result of the pandemic, as the world continued to reopen, and travel, mobility and migration accelerated at pace. In early January 2023, and centred almost entirely in Asia, the ongoing legacy of Covid in the travel and mobility space was lessened as countries removed concessions that had been in place on the labour market (for example in Vietnam) or dropped legacy vaccination requirements for the purpose of entry (for example in Singapore). Indeed, it was only in May of this year that the USA dropped vaccination requirements for foreign air travellers.
Undoubtedly, the most significant development has been the gradual reopening of China from
January, which started by reopening entry to Business Travel (M visa); Work Permits (Z visa); Family Visit/Family Reunion visas; together with a limited number of student visas. Importantly, tourism was not included in this first tranche of post-pandemic reopening.
As some China Embassies/Consulates began to remove the requirement for PCR tests for travellers entering China; China opened to tourism on 15 March, 2023; and pre-pandemic visa-free policies returned, with the resumption the Hainan 59 country visa free entry policy, 15-day visa free travel for cruise groups at Shanghai ports, visa free entry to Guangdong province for foreigners’ groups from Hong Kong and Macau SARs, and visa free entry to Guilin of Guangxi autonomous region for tourist groups from ASEAN countries. This marked the first time in three years that tourism returned to China.
Interestingly, during this period of the reopening of China, we also witnessed political reciprocity in the Asia region. As the borders opened, and in response to growing Covid rates throughout China, the government of South Korea stopped issuing tourist visas to Chinese citizens. In return, Chinese consular posts in Japan and South Korea suspended issuing Chinese visas of various kinds to Japanese and South Korean citizens. While short lived (China begin issuing visas to Japanese citizens on 30 January 2023, and to South Koreans on 11 February2023), it demonstrated a continuance of uncertainty as a result of pandemic.
With natural synergies to the Covid legacy above, 2023 Q1 has also seen the introduction of a greater number of health-related conditions being attached to visa issuance. Effective February 1, 2023, applicants for visitor visas and visitor renewal visas to and in Qatar will be required to purchase a health insurance policy from an authorized vendor in order for the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to adjudicate their applications. Individuals eligible for visas-on-arrival will be expected to purchase a health insurance policy from the Ministry of Public Health website prior to arriving, unless they hold an international insurance policy which includes coverage in Qatar for the entire duration of their stay and which is issued by one of the approved insurance companies.
Correspondingly, Taiwan has also introduced a “proof of vaccination” requirement for polio if a traveller has lived in or visited any of the following countries for more than four weeks in the past year: Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Israel, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique or Pakistan. It appears whilst Covid restrictions are being removed almost worldwide, a new discourse on health more broadly is developing.
International Relations impacting visa policy
As the China/Japan/South Korea post-Covid interactions above demonstrate, immigration and visa rules also play a part in the continuing broader relationships each country has with other countries, trading blocs and trading corridors; and 2023 is no exception. In moves to align itself more specifically with EU Policy, Serbia has introduced visas for Indian, Bolivian and Cuban nationals wishing to enter Serbia for tourism and business, whereas previously they were visa exempt for up to 30 days within a calendar year. This follows the reintroduction of visa requirements for Burundian and Tunisian nationals in December 2022. How much this will impact the cross-border relations between Serbia’s increasingly restrictive border policies and the policies of other EU Member States remain to be seen, however the Austrian Ministry for the Interior confirmed that it was now receiving less than 300 such asylum applications per week were being filed — compared to about 1,000 at the end of October 2022.
But here’s where EU policy alignment gets interesting. EU policy itself continues to have uncertain execution between member states. Austria was joined by Norway, Denmark, Germany and France in extending internal checks at their borders into October/November of 2023. Internal border controls are, in principle, not allowed within the Schengen Area as they have the consequence of delaying mobility within the European Single Market. They are nevertheless possible as temporary national security measures, with the above countries implementing the controls originally as a means to respond to the refugee crises that dominated European headlines in 2015. For this reason, the European Union is looking at amending the Schengen Border Code to allow European institutions to further scrutinize EU countries’ ability to set checks at internal Schengen borders.
Across the globe, the government of Brazil has announced it is revoking visa exemptions for nationals of Australia, Canada, Japan and the United States as of October 1, 2023, requiring such nationals to obtain an e-visa when traveling to Brazil for tourism, business, sports activities, or artistic performances or when transiting through Brazilian airports. The visa requirement adds administrative hurdles, additional costs and potential delays.
As to the ongoing immigration and travel consequences of the conflict in Ukraine, many European countries continued in 2023 to temporarily suspend visa issuance and restrict immigration rules for Russian citizens. In January 2023 Denmark removed Russia from its list of priority nationals for asylum applications, and in March 2023, the Czech government suspended the issuance of visas or residence permits to nationals who hold dual citizenship with Russia or Belarus. Other visa sanctions across the EU remain in place from 2022 in many cases, and employers should be aware of those when advising Russian employees on their rights, obligations and risks around travel.
It is clear that international relations and responding to international events as a community or bloc, will continue to be a strong contributor to risk discussions in the travel and immigration space. As the world becomes more interconnected, and borders become digitized, this is likely to continue.
Environmental Risk and Humanitarian Response
In a move similar to the international immigration and visa effort in response to the conflict in Ukraine in early 2022, 2023 has seen international collaboration in the humanitarian form once again; Switzerland made it immediately clear that it would prioritise visa applications filed in Türkiye by those affected by the devastating earthquake that hit the country in early February. In some cases, countries have implemented special visa rules for those affected. These range from allowing third country nationals who are in Belgium to apply for visa extensions if they are unable to return to their country of origin due to the earthquake, and short-term procedural flexibility in the Netherlands for those unable to return who require visa extensions, to the Canadian position of creating new visa pathways for individuals from Türkiye and Syria, including a work permit route which allows for selfemployment or work for any employer in Canada, as well as processing visitor visa applications for family members of Canadian citizens, and applications for refugee resettlement on a priority basis. A similar international response was seen to assist those who were impacted by the ongoing conflict in Sudan.
It Always Comes Back to Brexit
While the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is hardly news in 2023, the compliance consequences of a UK outside of the EU is still causing many companies to fall outside of rules, leading to significant impact on the ability to do business. In the first half of 2023, a number of EU member countries, including Belgium and Denmark, have ramped up on-site immigration inspections. As recently as April 2023, at least 14 UK contractors were removed from one company site by local immigration officers and were arrested on the grounds that they lacked the required visas and immigration paperwork to perform their temporary duties legally in that location. They then faced additional questioning, possible fines, and in the worst-case deportation. In a damaging move to the employing company’s ability to service its own clients, these contractors have also received a twoyear Schengen zone travel ban – which affects their individual ongoing ability to travel around Europe. It is imperative that companies use appropriate caution in sending any UK employees across Europe without fully assessing their immigration requirements first.
What can we learn from 2023 so far?
2023 has already demonstrated that travel and immigration risk is interrelated and compounding, where the impact of these combinations of world events and political decisions exceed the sum of each part. Traditional risk management has always worked well in a reasonably stable, globalized world. What has changed radically in the last three years is the world we know now does not divide in the same way. A travel world in 2023 has to contend with political reciprocity, conflict, energy crises, post-pandemic renewal, limitations of traveller rights, and public health concerns; to name only some of the issues that risk professionals are exploring in detail.
It can be argued that our thinking as travel managers, providers and strategists should not remain narrowly siloed and reactionary to risk and crisis events that might not on the face of it might seem distant and unconnected. Immigration and travel thinking might now play an integral part in dealing with and responding to the compounding nature of a world in permanent flux. The pandemic shone an acute lens on the immigration and travel risks that can affect organizations and individuals transacting business and relocating foreign workers worldwide. Borders closed, reopened, and closed again as transmissions of various strains of the virus took hold. In 2020 the world of business travel closed almost completely, and slowly rebuilt to the new normal we find ourselves in today in 2023.
In 2023, there is growing awareness that proactive travel managers can and should take steps to avoid the harshest consequences of a crisis happening in the first place. The travel programs that fared best during the rapid closure of borders were those that had accurate data of their short, medium, and long-term travellers, and were able to swiftly move their displaced people around the world through various and differing quarantine regimes and border closures, to operationalize the population as quickly as possible. The same can be said of companies that responded in time and robustly to Brexit, addressing the challenges head on and finding new pathways to remain compliant. A world/region/country risk response has led to increasing acceptance of risk mitigation and crisis management as part of a process continuum, which builds on the recognition (a) that most likely risks or crises are usually identifiable and (b) that programmatic responses, using data to identify, pre-empt and mitigate the harshest of risk reality. The review of the first half of the year might indicate that travel managers should embrace the interrelation of different types of visa and immigration risk to truly be able to navigate the ever-changing complexities of a changing and uncertain world. Partnering with experts to help with that navigation will help enormously, but maybe an attitude refresh might be even better; anticipating, connecting and mitigating events as they unfold; and could possibly be the true game changer when it comes to the ongoing risks of our 2023 travel landscape.