LEARN TO FLY
REFLECTIONS ON ONE OF THE MOST POWERFUL PIECES OF PAPER YOU’LL EVER OWN
Reflections on the most powerful piece of paper you will ever own: your passport.
THE FIRST PHILIPPINE PASSPORT WAS ISSUED DURING THE WAR
years by Claro M. Recto, then the Minister of Foreign Affairs, to Jose Vargas, ambassador to Japan, and was marked with the serial number “1”. Since then, the passport has shrunk from the size of a small hardbound Bible to the international standard size, and is now a burgundy booklet bristling with security features and an RF-accessible microchip on the last page.
Seventy-four years after that first issue, the Philippine passport currently ranks 76th in the annual Visa Restriction Index published by Henley and Partners. This is a fairly poor ranking among the 104 passports surveyed out of 196 countries—the survey leaves out many of the smaller countries and territories, including the Vatican (the Pope does have a diplomatic passport from the Holy See, in case you’re wondering, but chooses to travel as an Argentinian citizen). Traveling the world looks very different to someone holding a German passport—currently the most powerful passport—to a Philippine passport holder, though we don’t have it as bad as Afghanistan, which currently holds the bottom slot.
This means that for us, travel is rarely a spontaneous pursuit; by January, most travelers planning a summer break are beginning the nervewracking activity of compiling and photocopying documents and filling out long and pointless forms. Have you ever engaged in terrorism? Have you ever trafficked arms or nuclear weapons? List every trip you have ever taken in the last ten years. (One consulate required “proof of birth”;
apparently the fact that I was standing there in front of them was not proof enough.) And all of that is for one country’s consular section, which will hold your passport hostage until they issue the visa, after which you move on to the next—if they have a consulate in the Philippines. These days you can apply for a visa to Botswana by posting your passport to Japan, but I applied from South Africa, and spent a fortnight lurching from one vineyard to another in the wine country until I received a call from the embassy that my passport had been stamped with the appropriate visa.
The origins of the passport are usually traced to the documents issued by sovereigns that ensured “right of safe passage” when traveling through foreign territories: it was, in essence, a letter from my king to your king saying that he vouched for me, and also if anything happens to him you’re going to hear about it. The real passport as we know it was invented during the First World War, when Europe was already connected by rail but borders were porous and people moved about freely. Its purpose was, as it is today, to stop spies from crossing into home territory. By its nature it was meant to impede, rather than expediate, travel, and in that capacity it continues the tradition today, more than ever.
Most of traveling is not spent atop mountain peaks or in eating at fancy restaurants or luxuriating in bubble baths, but waiting; and much of this waiting will be behind border control desks. The rationale behind visas is that they provide security from terrorism and are a means to screen against illegal immigrants. While these are valid concerns, the requirement (or lack thereof ) for visas also not-so-subtly rewards citizens of rich countries and penalizes, often in an unnecessarily humiliating way, citizens of countries that the world considers less desirable. Anyone who has queued in the sun outside the U.S. Embassy on Roxas Boulevard will understand this. The French embassy in London seemed to take an almost sadistic pleasure in seeing the long line of African, Chinese, and Filipino applicants huddling in the cold on the pavement outside the consulate in Kensington, almost as if it were an exhibit to show all the passers-by how much suffering we were willing to endure in order to enter their great and glorious republique. Now the inhumane has been exchanged for the predatory: VFS, a company to which many consulates have outsourced the primary stages of visa processing, will give you comfy chairs, a soothing beverage, and happily take your money for “premium services.”
The process is all the more irksome because the evidence that visas can protect against terrorism remains unconvincing. All that onerous collation of bank statements and employment records doesn’t feel like it would deter terrorists, and it doesn’t, really. Although it provides an initial screening by tapping into various databases, this could equally well be done at the border. Airlines, hotels, and other private entities are also opting into the Interpol’s I-Checkit programme, which immediately flags travel documents connected to terrorists, child sex offenders, or international criminal organizations, as well as those which have been reported as lost or stolen. The majority of the questions on a visa application form are actually screening for illegal immigration: what they are trying to find out is whether after taking in the sights, trying the local restaurants, and buying souvenirs, you will get on that plane and go back home.
The best way of establishing this, unfortunately, is by checking your finances. Countries like the U.S., the UK, and those in the Schengen area of Europe are highly attractive to Filipinos (and other poor countries’ migrants), so they are keen to establish that you have a job that pays well and that you will return to that job, or that you are independently wealthy and there’s no reason for you to go underground and become a dishwasher in Chinatown. It also means that those who get visas are the kind tourists that most countries like: the rich ones who will spend money they earned in their home countries to infuse the local economy with cash. Taking a “gap year” after high school and before university to backpack around the world during a formative moment in their lives is a privilege of youngsters from rich countries—and children of rich parents in poor countries. On the other hand, however, we have to come to terms with the fact that the Philippine passport is regarded with suspicion for a reason. Our record with regard to illegal immigration has not exactly been spotless. We habitually flout the rule about not working on a tourist visa: getting paid to do some modelling, selling artwork, receiving renumeration for anything at all, including banging bongo drums in the subway for coins, counts as work.
We live in a time when walls are going up rather than coming down, and this applies not just to refugees and migrants but to tourists as well. In times of prosperity, countries, like businesses, tend to merge and consolidate; and in times of recession they split up. The heady years of the late 20th century saw the reunification of Germany; in 1995 the implementation of the Schengen agreement which made travelling to Europe much, much easier; and in 1999 the euro supplanted most of the EU member states’ currencies. Times of crisis tend to result in balkanization, with the Balkans prior to the First World War being an excellent example as well as being the etymology of the term. While the U.S., the UK, Canada, the EU countries, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan will continue to share data, Britain’s exit from the EU and United States president Trump’s push for stricter border controls will mean that the plight of the Filipino traveller to these countries will only get worse. At the time of writing, the U.S. border policy is in a state of chaos, with legitimate travelers and legal residents being turned away at the airport. The push against terrorism and radicalization also means that travel to Iran, Pakistan, Somalia, and other countries associated with Islamic terrorists will make getting a visa more difficult—and you can be refused entry at the discretion of the border control officer even if you have a valid visa. This applies not just to the U.S., where you will be automatically be taken aside for secondary screning, but to most first-world countries who are on edge.
There is so much pride and amour-propre involved on our side in applying to travel, and so much paranoia and chest-thumping on the part of countries requiring them. Yet most of the nail-biting suspense and copious paperwork required to issue a visa are ultimately unnecessary. While there is a need to control illegal immigration and flag terrorists, countries lose out on billions every year because potential tourists are put off needlessly daunting forms and bureaucracy.
A nice middle ground between throwing open borders altogether and torturing would-be visitors with twenty-page forms is the visaupon-arrival (basically the same as a more intensive screening at the airport, except that they get to collect money), or an online application beforehand, which is being implemented by countries like India and
Taiwan and Turkey. A quick internet search will throw up a list of countries for which Filipinos don’t need a visa. Mongolia, for instance, is a highly underrated destination—and their economy could use the cash. Filipinos travel to Morocco, Brazil, and Kenya more than other neighboring countries that insist on a visa requirement. Rather than prostrating ourselves before the consulates of countries that make traveling harder than it already is, we should bring the not-inconsiderable revenue of our tourist income to countries which are more welcoming.
Just as the transformative effects of travel remain in your soul long after you have returned home, the difficulties of travel begin even before you start packing your bags. Part of the self-discovery of traveling is finding out what you will travel as; and for most of us, it means traveling with the much-maligned maroon passport that marks us as Filipino. If taking pride in it is too much of a stretch, then learning to accept its limitations and enjoy where it can take you is the next best thing.