The African Union's plans to open borders. 

By Melanie Lieberman
Updated: January 21, 2017
Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

While visa-free travel in the European Union is coming under fire, another part of the world is taking the first step toward border-free travel.

The African Union plans to distribute a common, electronic passport to all African citizens by 2018, granting them visa-free access to all 54 states in the union.

The project was called a “symbolic and significant” step toward an “integrated and united” Africa in a statement from last month’s African Union summit in Rwanda. The AU passports, CNN reports, will initially be given to heads of state and senior government officials.

According to this year’s Africa Visa Openness Index, as many as 55 percent of Africans need visas to travel to other countries in Africa. By 2063, the African Union aims to create “a continent with seamless borders,” but at this time, only 13 countries have open borders for all Africans. By comparison, Americans can travel to 20 countries in Africa without visas or receiving a visa on arrival.

By connecting African countries, the initiative aims to jumpstart trade and socioeconomic development. Countries that have already improved visa procedures (including Rwanda, Uganda, and the Seychelles) have seen an upward trajectory for travel figures, in addition to employment, exports, and investments.

With an eye toward the benefits procured from the Schengen Agreement — growth in tourism and commerce — the African Union is promising that in at least one part of the world, passport-free travel isn’t dead.

Melanie Lieberman is the Assistant Digital Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @melanietaryn