The case for a BRICS visa waiver agreement
India and China are discussing the introduction of visas on arrival for their citizens. This step would dramatically reduce bureaucracy-related travel costs and save time. Aside from the economic gain, it would also be an important step towards facilitating people-to-people contact in the Global South. In the same way, Brazil-China ties should no longer be artificially limited by anachronistic visa rules.
Citizens of the Global South have traditionally faced many difficulties when traveling the world. Visa requirements are often cumbersome and expensive, and require time-consuming queuing, sending invitation letters and proving sufficient money on the bank account. Treatment at airports in rich countries varies considerably depending on the passport travelers present at the immigration counter. Yet what is more paradoxical are the tough visa restrictions developing countries impose on each other, making South-South travel an often nightmarish experience.
This is part of a much larger global problem: countries in the Global South are far more disconnected from each other than those of the Global North. This is true both within and between continents. Take air transport. Hundreds of airlines are criss-crossing Europe and North America. South America and Africa, on the other hand, remain divided internally. The same is true for intercontinental air travel between Asia, Africa and Latin America. While traveling from Europe to North America is cheap and easy, South-South long haul travel is often expensive and involves long layovers.
While some may regard such airport talk as an irrelevant problem that only affects a tiny minority, the situation symbolizes how limited people-to-people interaction still is between countries of the Global South. This is true regarding FDI, trade, travel, and, equally important, the flow of ideas. Brazilian academics keen to understand China will buy Kissinger's On China, McGregor's The Party, or Brautigam's The Dragon's Gift, books which inevitably analyze China from a US-American or European perspective. The same is true about Chinese scholars interested in Brazil. (India may be the exception, as it boasts a few global voices, such as Shashi Tharoor). As a consequence, policy makers in the Global South are bound to know less about each other then their counterparts in the Global North. This makes coordinating policies or developing joint initiatives much more difficult.
One way to remove at least one of the many obstacles is for governments to reduce visas restrictions that make South-South travel so burdensome. A visa-waiver agreement between Brazil and Russia, in effect since 2010, has been a good start. A similar agreement makes travel between Brazil and South Africa easier. Since early 2013, citizens from Brazil and Russia can spend 72 hours in Beijing or Shanghai without a visa - provided that they do not travel through the country. More recently, India has dramatically liberalized visa rules, allowing Brazilian and Russian travelers, among many other nationalities, to obtain their visa upon arrival.
These examples show that political willingness can go a long way in allaying concerns about security and illegal migration. The next step should be a visa-waiver program (that provides visa on arrival) between all BRICS countries, allowing tourists, business travelers and academics to stay 3 months in any BRICS country without applying for a visa before their trip. This would enhance people-to-people ties on many levels, and could even contribute to boosting intra-BRICS trade and investment. An agreement between China and India would be a huge step towards bringing people together and reducing mutual ignorance.
Finally, it would provide citizens with a clear and tangible benefit of the often nebulous and difficult to understand BRICS negotiations. The announcement of a BRICS visa-free travel agreement or even additional bilateral agreements at the 7th BRICS Summit in Ufa in July 2015 would be a welcome sign that BRICS policy makers are serious about connecting the Global South.
Photo credit: Airplane Pictures / AJB