Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Visa-free travel: A chance to reignite the Pacific voyage

Barriers to the movement of people split up the regional family.  

Hōkūleʻa, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe (Tara Molle/US Coast Guard)
Hōkūleʻa, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe (Tara Molle/US Coast Guard)
Published 30 Jan 2024 

Voyaging is a fundamental part of the Pacific. It ties Pasifika peoples, cultures and economies together across thousands of years of history. The tradition of voyaging remains alive via organisations such as the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which commenced modern voyages in the 1970s. The Polynesian Voyaging Society’s vessel Hōkūle‘a was the first in the modern era to use traditional knowledge to navigate across national borders, successfully crossing the ocean from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1975. In 2023, the Hōkūle‘a commenced its latest voyage, a four-year circumnavigation of the Pacific.

There are other ways to experience the Pacific voyage, or rather the effect of the voyage, such as through the Pacific diaspora. This is evident in cross-border familial ties and via diaspora communities in cities such as Cairns and Auckland.

Despite this history and the importance of voyaging to Pacific Islands peoples, there are limits on their ability to travel. The Henley Passport Index indicates that Pacific Islander peoples are more limited by visa requirements compared with their near neighbours, Australia and New Zealand. These limits are typified by reciprocity issues and unequal regional travel that could be alleviated with visa-free travel or a Pacific common travel area. Indeed, Fiji’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Biman Prasad declared only last month that there was “not a chance” of an economically integrated Pacific without the visa-free movement of people.

Visa requirements place limits on the social, cultural and economic growth of the region, and continue to limit the ability of Pasifika peoples to voyage the Pacific freely.

Many passports issued by Pacific Islands nations are limited by the number of countries that a passport-holder may visit without a visa. For example, a passport issued by Solomon Islands, which ranks 41 on the Henley Index (relatively high for a Pacific Islands nation), only enables its holder to travel to 134 countries visa-free. At the lower end of the table, Papua New Guinea is ranked 62, with holders of a PNG passport only able to travel to 85 countries without a visa. Most other Pacific Islands passports fall somewhere in between.

Unsurprisingly, Australia and New Zealand, ranked equally at 6, allow their passport-holders to travel visa-free to 189 countries, including many Pacific Islands locales. There is no reciprocity, however. Many Pacific Islanders are unable to travel without a visa to Australia and New Zealand, where they may have family, friends or even jobs via the Pacific Labour Mobility Scheme. New Zealand and Australia also do not allow citizens of Pacific Islands countries to utilise the more efficient and cheaper e-visa scheme.

Despite a block on many Pacific Islanders entering Australia and New Zealand without a visa, many Pacific passport-holders are welcomed to the United Kingdom and European Union without a visa, including Solomon Islanders, Samoans and Tongans.

Travel between Pacific Islands is also not always guaranteed, with Papua New Guineans being unable to enter New Caledonia and French Polynesia without a visa. Similarly, Fijian passport-holders are blocked from French Polynesia without a visa.

These visa requirements place limits on the social, cultural and economic growth of the region, and continue to limit the ability of Pasifika peoples to voyage the Pacific freely.

Establishing a common travel area offers a possible solution.

Common travel areas have been lauded for decades in Europe as a solution that drives stability and economic growth and benefits remote regions. Common travel areas are already implemented in Europe via the Schengen Area, which covers the European Union and a handful of other countries. In the United Kingdom, which dramatically exited the EU, a common travel area persists between the United Kingdom, Ireland, Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Recent talk among politicians across the Pacific, Australia and New Zealand indicates a shift in thinking about cross-border travel and the need for visa-free travel across the Pacific. In addition to the recent remarks from Fiji’s Deputy PM, over the course of 2023 the Australian government commenced offering additional visa types to Pacific Islanders, in particular Tuvaluans to resettle in Australia due to the impacts of climate change.

Similarly, there have been discussions on both sides of the Tasman about scrapping the need to even have a passport when travelling between Australia and New Zealand, in a system similar to the Schengen Common Travel Area. Such a move would also likely benefit Pacific Islanders with a visa for Australia or New Zealand, effectively enabling them to hop between the two countries.

Climate change, economic imperatives and cultural ties will put pressure on governments to make long-term reforms a reality.

Pacific Research Program

You may also be interested in