A passport from this country is "the latest status symbol". And the world's wealthiest people are lining up for one, news.com au reports.

It is a charming island nation in the Mediterranean that boasts incredible beaches, excellent weather, an easygoing lifestyle and extraordinary historical sites.

But Malta, the tiny independent country south of Sicily, offers something far more important, as far as some of the world's richest people are concerned — a very attractive passport.

A passport from Malta, which is part of the European Union, gives its holder the right to visa-free travel to 182 destinations, according to the Henley Passport Index, and can be outright bought without having to live in the country.

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The passport of Malta, which is part of the European Union. Photo / Getty Images
The passport of Malta, which is part of the European Union. Photo / Getty Images

And as more and more wealthy individuals seek secondary citizenship for security, many have their eye on Malta, which doesn't impose taxes on their worldwide income and assets and applies only a flat 15 per cent tax on money brought into the country, according to Bloomberg News.

"If you have a yacht and two aeroplanes, the next thing to get is a Maltese passport," Henley & Partners chairman Christian Kalin told Bloomberg.

"It's the latest status symbol. We've had clients who simply like to collect a few."

Malta is one of 10 countries in the world that allows foreigners to buy citizenship outright in what's dubbed a "cash-for-passport" program.

Under the scheme, the individuals must buy or lease property on Malta's three islands, invest money and contribute to a development fund in exchange for the passport, without the need to live in the country or regularly visit.

While a Maltese passport costs a lot in minimum investments, it is cheaper than other European options including Austria ($33.4 million) and Cyprus ($3.3 million), and its EU status sets it apart from passports of Caribbean countries such as Grenada, St Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Dominica, and Antigua and Barbuda.

Paul Williams, from UK-based citizenship specialist firm La Vida, told The Times the total investment for a Maltese passport was about €1.25 million, or $2.03 million.

The scheme has brought $960 million into Malta through more than 700 investors since it was launched in 2014, Malta Today reported.

And a huge proportion of those investors are very wealthy Russians.

In a recent list of freshly minted Maltese nationals released by Malta's government in December, almost half were Russian magnates, real estate tycoons and heads of some of Russia's biggest private companies.

Wealthy Russians are among those clamouring to become citizens of Malta. Photo / Getty Images
Wealthy Russians are among those clamouring to become citizens of Malta. Photo / Getty Images

Among the names were: Alexey Marey, the former chief executive of Russia's largest private lender, Alfa Bank Russia; security firm co-founder Alexey De-Monderik; Arkady Volozh, who owns Yandex, Russia's answer to Google; and Alexander Mechetin, the head of Beluga Group, Russia's largest private spirits company.

Others included media millionaire Dmitri Semenikhin, oil and gas magnate Roman Trushev, transport magnate Andrey Gomon, investment broker Alexey Kirienko and petrol tycoon Dmitry Lipyavko, among others.

The surge in Russian applicants appears to follow economic sanctions on Russia imposed by the EU and United States in response to the 2014 invasion of Ukraine.

Ilya Shumanov, the Russian head of non-government organisation Transparency International, said Russian oligarchs were flocking to Malta seeking to hedge risk.

"They would like to find a quiet haven for their families and relatives, and buying a second passport is a chance to hedge their personal risk," he told Canada's CBC.

"You are now a Maltese citizen and not a Russian one — the sanctions could avoid you.

"They could cancel their Russian residence at any time. Sanctions will be imposed only on Russian oligarchs. Not on Maltese oligarchs."

Malta has maintained that its cash-for-passport program, officially called the Individual Investor Program, was designed to attract wealthy investors and boost the national coffers.

But it has been criticised for effectively selling access to the European Union and providing opportunities for potentially shady dealings.

It's not just scenes like this, on the Maltese island of Comino, that makes Maltese citizenship attractive to the wealthy. Photo / Getty Images
It's not just scenes like this, on the Maltese island of Comino, that makes Maltese citizenship attractive to the wealthy. Photo / Getty Images

A report by Transparency International, released in December, warned the scheme was "attractive in that it allows laundering large sums of money while simultaneously gaining free access to the countries of the European Union".

"In addition, the EU citizen passport greatly facilitates the movement of money, as European banks consider holders of 'gold passports' as local residents, and not as suspicious foreigners. In fact, it is a question of reputation laundering," the report said.

"It is no coincidence that the 'golden visas' are the most popular among investors from countries with high levels of corruption, a strong shadow economy and an unstable political system."

The report also noted corruption risks in the large cash transactions between the applicant and the country, "which are often not transparent in their structure".

"As a result, people who were supposed to invest in the economy and property of the state, turned into 'ghosts' with mailboxes in cheap apartments," it said.

In August, the European Union warned it would crack down on EU governments including Malta and Cyprus for the passport schemes amid concerns about dirty money from Russia.

Vera Jourova, the EU's commissioner for justice, told the Financial Times there were also concerns about the origins of the wealth of Russian applicants for Maltese citizenship.

"In cases of any doubt, a person should not have the privilege of citizenship," Ms Jourova said.

"We have no power to ban such a practice but we have an obligation to put high requirements on the member states to be careful. They are granting citizenship for the whole of Europe."