KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
When we think of exports, we tend to think of oil or wheat, maybe electronics, but a growing number of countries have started offering a rather unusual export - passports, as in citizenship. Stacey Vanek Smith from our PLANET MONEY podcast has the story of the country that kicked off the trend.
STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: St. Kitts-Nevis is an island country in the Caribbean - beautiful, jungly (ph) mountains, little troops of monkeys running around and pretty much everywhere you look, construction. This is the villas at Pinney's Beach. It's a line of white stucco houses near the Caribbean Ocean. Each one has three bedrooms, a big open kitchen and its own pool. Terry Scanlan sells these villas. The three we're standing in front of were sold a long time ago, but you wouldn't know it. There are no cars in the driveway, no people anywhere.
Is there anyone there right now?
TERRY SCANLAN: No, I don't believe there's anyone there.
SMITH: And is this person home?
SMITH: That's because the people who bought these villas were more interested in what came with them. Buy one of these houses, and St. Kitts will throw in a passport. You become a citizen of St. Kitts-Nevis, and each of these houses is owned by 10 different families.
This could be 10 passports.
SCANLAN: Well, in actuality, it could probably be 50 passports now because you get a passport for the head of the family. You can get a passport for your wife, obviously, for your kids, and then you can also get it for your parents.
SMITH: That's a lot of passports.
SCANLAN: That's a lot of passports.
SMITH: If you spend $400,000 on an apartment or house in St. Kitts or just donate $250,000 to the country - boom, you become a citizen provided you pass a background check. You never even have to visit the country. Wendell Lawrence helped put this program together about 10 years ago. He was working for the Ministry of Finance, and the St. Kitts economy was in dire shape. Debt was out of control.
WENDELL LAWRENCE: I think the debt reach one of the highest in the world.
SMITH: You guys had the highest debt to GDP ratio in the world.
LAWRENCE: One of the highest in the world.
SMITH: And then a company, Henley & Partners, approached St. Kitts and said, why don't you market and sell your citizenship like a product? There is big demand for this. Say you're a businessperson and you travel a lot. If you have a passport from Russia or China, it is really inconvenient. You are always applying for visas. A St. Kitts-Nevis passport lets you travel visa-free almost everywhere. Citizenship was an untapped resource, and Wendell Lawrence was convinced. So he went on a global road show looking for customers.
LAWRENCE: Zurich, the U.K., Hong Kong, Singapore to introduce them to St. Kitts and Nevis where we are.
SMITH: Oh, like, where you are on the...
LAWRENCE: Geographically (laughter).
SMITH: Was that weird to be, like, here's a globe. Here's...
LAWRENCE: Oh, yeah.
SMITH: The program became a big success. St. Kitts-Nevis started selling 200,000 passports a year. Sales made up a quarter of the country's GDP. A bunch of fancy hotels cropped up, and the passport business kept growing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You and your family obtain a remarkable second citizenship for life.
SMITH: It worked so well competition cropped up. Antigua, Dominica, Malta all started selling citizenship. And then a couple of international criminals showed up in Canada carrying St. Kitts passport they had purchased. Canada started requiring St. Kitts-Nevis travelers to get a visa. The U.S. put out an advisory, and suddenly, the St. Kitts passport wasn't as valuable.
St. Kitts is working to get the U.S. and Canada to restore its passport's good standing, but in the meantime, there's a worry citizenship sales could dry up. Still, Wendell Lawrence, who helped start the program, says he's proud of its results.
SMITH: Do you have any regrets about the program?
LAWRENCE: No. The benefits of the program has so far outweighed any negatives.
SMITH: Employment is high. Tourism is up, and there are lots of beautiful new housing developments, even if they are empty. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.