Skift Take

It's no coincidence that a wave of eased visa restrictions ended in the same year in which more than one billion tourists crossed borders for the first time ever.

A record 1.035 billion tourists traveled around the world in 2012. As the number of tourists crossing borders grew each year, the restrictions and costs that keep them out of certain nations decreased. There are still those countries that seem near impossible to enter for even the most adventurous traveler, but overall, visa requirements have lightened in recent years.

Over the last four years, the number of tourists that needed a traditional visa to visit a destination went from 77 percent to 63 percent. The past two years, in particular, have seen a wave of visa restrictions lifted. Forty-three destinations eased their visa policies from traditional applications to eVisas, visas on arrival, or eliminated their visa requirements all together.

Countries ease visa procedures in anticipation of significant growth in certain tourism markets. They want to make it as easy as possible for those travelers to get into the country and start spending money.

“An overall restrictive visa policy means lost opportunities for economic growth and jobs, which tourism could bring to destinations,” said UNWTO Secretary-General, Taleb Rifai. “Travellers regard visas as a formality, which entails a cost. This can be a deterrent to travel if costs – whether monetary or indirect – including distance, wait times and service, exceed a certain threshold.”

Research conducted by the UNWTO and World Travel and Tourism Council predicts that improved visa processes could generate an additional $206 billion in global tourism receipts and create up to 5.1 million jobs by 2015.

Visa requirements by region

The easiest regions to visit in terms of visa requirements and procedures are Asia and the Americas. The following chart outlines what percentage of the world’s population needs which category of visa to visit a destination in that region.

Region Traditional Visa No Visa Visa on Arrival eVisa
Asia 54% 20% 19% 7%
Americas 60% 31% 8% 1%
Europe 73% 21% 6% 0%


European countries are considered the ‘least open’ with 73 percent of the world’s population needing a traditional visa to enter, but their relatively stringent visa policies turned out not to be a major deterrent. According to the UNWTO, Europe received 51 percent of all international tourism, or 535 million arrivals, in 2012.

This is in part due to the influx of Chinese tourists in the past year. The exception may be the UK whose cumbersome visa system kept it from capitalizing on the influx of shopaholic Chinese tourists that boosted tourism receipts in nearby France, Italy, and Spain.

Russian President Putin did protest the current restrictions and pushed for visa-free travel between Russia and the EU to promote trade. The European countries pushed back, weary of setting off a wave of labor migration.


Destinations in Asia are considered very open with only 54 percent of international tourists needing a traditional visa and 20 percent needing no visa at all. Tourism to Asia and the Pacific in 2012 grew 7 percent year-over-year to 15 million arrivals. The region’s growth prospects for 2013 are currently the strongest in the world.

Notable changes to visa processes in 2012 include Beijing and Shanghai’s introduction of three-day visa-free visits and Burma’s newly opened borders with visas on arrival available for tourists from 22 new countries. This December Pakistan and India granted reciprocal group tourist visas for the first time in their histories.

The Americas

The Americas are the easiest to travel to visa-free with 31 percent of global travelers able to visit destinations without a visa. Another 8 percent can receive a visa on arrival, while 61 percent of travelers still need a traditional visa to cross borders.

A total of 162 million visitors arrived in the region in 2012, and arrivals are expected to grow 3 to 4 percent throughout the Americas in 2013. In particular, tourism to North America grew 3 percent in 2012, while the Caribbean performed above the previous two years.

In the U.S., Obama improved the visa wait times for Chinese and Brazilian visitors. Cuba eliminated its exit visas earlier this month giving Cubans the permission to travel freely for the first time since 1961. An influx of Cuban visitors to the U.S. is expected as a result.


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Tags: tourism, unwto, visas

Photo credit: Tourists gather at Christ the Reedemer staff in Rio. Matt MacPake /

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